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Atlanta museums extend exhibitions closed abruptly because of COVID-19

“Super Nova” is one of several works in the new show “Nu Africans” by Grace Kisa and Maurice Evans. The show opens in July at the Hammonds House Museum. Originally scheduled to open in April, the show was postponed when the museum temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Maurice Evans; Styling: Grace Kisa).
“Super Nova” is one of several works in the new show “Nu Africans” by Grace Kisa and Maurice Evans. The show opens in July at the Hammonds House Museum. Originally scheduled to open in April, the show was postponed when the museum temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Maurice Evans; Styling: Grace Kisa).

Katie Jentleson watched revelers at the opening night party for the High Museum exhibition "Paa Joe: Gates of No Return" on March 6, and knew the show was a potential hit.

Two DJs kept the crowd of at least 1,500 moving. Cocktails and laughter flowed freely. Jentleson, a curator of folk and self-taught art, led some of the largest tour groups she’d ever had at the museum. They came to see seven wooden castles the size of large coffins. Each carved “fantasy coffin” represents an actual fortress along the Ghanaian coast where Africans bound for enslavement in the Americas were held during the transatlantic slave trade. Today, the real castles are popular points of pilgrimage for African Americans. The party also coincided with the 63rd anniversary of Ghana’s independence from Britain, a nation made wealthy, in part, by Britain’s involvement in the slave trade for nearly 250 years.

At opening night, “people who’d been to the castles were coming up telling their stories about standing in the doorways of the castles,” Jentleson said. “It was a celebration of survival.”

But within a week of the party, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Georgia, the High Museum shut its doors. Since then, “Gates of No Return” by Ghanaian artist Joseph “Paa Joe” Ashong, has occupied a gallery with no in-person visitors. The same is true for other museums and cultural centers across the city, as stay-at-home orders kept people away in an effort to curtail the spread of the virus.

A sculpture by Ghanaian fantasy coffin maker Paa Joe. This is a replica of Fort St. Sebastian where thousands of enslaved Africans were held before they were shipped off to the Americas and the Caribbean in the transatlantic slave trade. The replica is part of the High Museum’s new exhibition “Paa Joe: Gates of No Return.” The show was temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Courtesy of the Jack Shainman Gallery)
A sculpture by Ghanaian fantasy coffin maker Paa Joe. This is a replica of Fort St. Sebastian where thousands of enslaved Africans were held before they were shipped off to the Americas and the Caribbean in the transatlantic slave trade. The replica is part of the High Museum’s new exhibition “Paa Joe: Gates of No Return.” The show was temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Courtesy of the Jack Shainman Gallery)

But now that Georgia has reopened, the High, the Atlanta History Center and the Hammonds House Museum are tentatively opening their doors again to the public. Each is reopening with exhibitions that were early in their runs at the time stay-at-home orders were issued, or were slated to open within days of the state’s shutdown.

Here we revisit three of those shows: “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” presented by the Atlanta History Center, “Nu Africans” presented by the Hammonds House and “Gates of No Return.” Each show’s run has been extended to accommodate for time lost to the shutdown. And all of the institutions are taking safety precautions such as limited entry, requiring guests to wear masks and providing multiple hand-sanitizing stations. But as cases in Georgia continue to rise, each institution is monitoring developments, hopeful they won’t have to close their doors again.

“Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow”

The exhibition, on loan from the New York Historical Society, documents the enduring fight African Americans have waged for unencumbered access to the basics of citizenship: landownership, voting rights, equal education, housing and health care. The show begins with actual shackles worn by an enslaved girl and ends with 20th century sculpture and paintings by Black artists that depict an unfulfilled yearning for equal treatment and opportunity.

Those elements remain but interactive features such as videos and live performances have been removed or canceled. So have community dinners meant to foster dialogue about the issues raised in the show.

“We were pursuing partnerships with a senior center to bring them in, but it became apparent as things got worse that we couldn’t bring seniors in,” said Calinda Lee, vice president of historical interpretation and community partnerships and curator of the Atlanta version of the exhibition. “I was heartbroken.”

A photo of instructors at Morris Brown College not long after the college’s founding, in 1881, anchors the Atlanta section of the exhibition “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” at the Atlanta History Center. The exhibition, which opened in late January, was closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Miguel Martinez for the AJC)
A photo of instructors at Morris Brown College not long after the college’s founding, in 1881, anchors the Atlanta section of the exhibition “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” at the Atlanta History Center. The exhibition, which opened in late January, was closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Miguel Martinez for the AJC)

The shutdown forced the center to invest more in digital presentations. Those will continue with “Black Citizenship,” Lee said, since travel is still fraught. Author Kiese Lemon and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey are among the writers scheduled for virtual author talks later this summer. Short video monologues depicting some of the events featured in the exhibition are also being created.

“This exhibition could not be more timely in terms of interrogating people’s unfettered access to their democratic rights, especially the right to vote,” said Lee.

The center reopens on July 3. Initially set to close in June, "Black Citizenship" has been extended to February 2021.

Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com.

“Nu Africans” 

The 30 images that comprise the show “Nu Africans” by Grace Kisa and Maurice Evans were supposed to be installed on April 3 at Hammonds House Museum. But on April 2, Georgia was put under a stay-at-home order. The museum had already closed in mid-March but not knowing when the museum would reopen, executive director Leatrice Ellzy Wright put together its first digital opening featuring “Nu Africans.”

The show was a rare collaborative exhibition between the husband and wife artists, Evans and Kisa, said Ellzy Wright. So in May, a virtual tour of the show was added, but no static images of the entire show. Viewership was strong, Ellzy Wright said. Yet, the online presentation didn’t convey the nuance of the multimedia show that explores the way African cultures melded to create something new in the Americas in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade.

A collaborative work by artists Maurice Evans and Grace Kisa, “Cosmos,” from the current Hammonds House Museum exhibition “Nu Africans” which will be available for in-person viewing when the gallery reopens in mid-July. Contributed by Maurice Evans
A collaborative work by artists Maurice Evans and Grace Kisa, “Cosmos,” from the current Hammonds House Museum exhibition “Nu Africans” which will be available for in-person viewing when the gallery reopens in mid-July. Contributed by Maurice Evans

The show emphasizes the feminine and in some ways is an expression of the ongoing discussion over Black identity between Evans, who was born in the United States, and Kisa, who was born in Kenya, Ellzy Wright said.

“Wherever Africans have been dispersed, they’ve developed their own value system, but we are all of African descent,” Ellzy Wright said.

The museum is scheduled to open on July 8, but by appointment only for groups of six or less.

Hammonds House, 503 Peeples St. SW, Atlanta. 404-612-0481, hammondshouse.org.

“Paa Joe: Gates of No Return”

Joseph “Paa Joe” Ashong is revered for his work creating fantasy coffins in Ghana. They became popular and something of a status symbol after the nation became independent. A fisherman’s family might commission a coffin made to look like a giant tropical fish. A mechanic might be buried in a coffin designed to look like his favorite car.

A sculpture by Ghanaian fantasy coffin maker Paa Joe. This is a replica of Fort Gross-Friedrichsburg where thousands of enslaved Africans were held before they were shipped off to the Americas and the Caribbean in the transatlantic slave trade. The replica is part of the High Museum’s new exhibition “Paa Joe: Gates of No Return.” The show was originally done by the American Folk Art Museum in 2018. Photo courtesy of Paa Joe and Jack Shainman Gallery
A sculpture by Ghanaian fantasy coffin maker Paa Joe. This is a replica of Fort Gross-Friedrichsburg where thousands of enslaved Africans were held before they were shipped off to the Americas and the Caribbean in the transatlantic slave trade. The replica is part of the High Museum’s new exhibition “Paa Joe: Gates of No Return.” The show was originally done by the American Folk Art Museum in 2018. Photo courtesy of Paa Joe and Jack Shainman Gallery

Ashong was commissioned by a collector about 20 years ago to create a series of coffins representing the castles where people began their journey into enslavement. The coffins were first featured at the National Folk Art Museum in 2018. Jentleson said Ashong was scheduled to attend the High’s March 6 opening but as the new coronavirus spread it became apparent such a journey was unsafe for the 73-year-old artist.

“Now we know it was probably all over the United States by then,” Jentleson said.

Initially scheduled to close at the end of May, the show has been extended to August 16.

“This show is so impactful, especially at this time,” Jentleson said. “I want it to stay forever, or at least as long as it can.”

The High opens on July 7-17 to members and front-line workers. It opens to the general public July 18.

High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4400, high.org.