At Spelman Museum of Fine Art, Africa is trending.
Artist Lina Iris Viktor’s large-scale work “Constellations,” inspired by African tribal marks, stars and black women, possesses an undeniable magnetism. At the center of the piece is the image of a woman painted blue-black, surrounded by a 24-karat gold galaxy, with planetary rings circling her head like halos.
The stunning work spreads across three panels, and anchors the museum’s 20th anniversary exhibition, “Africa Forecast: Fashioning Contemporary Life,” on display through Dec. 3.
The exhibition features original work by 20 black women from Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S.: Firelei Baez, Joana Choumali, Bethany Collins, Vanessa German, Ayana V. Jackson, Fabiola Jean-Louis, Marcia Kure, Madam Wokie, Mimi Plange, Zanele Muholi, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Zohra Opoku, Ebony G. Patterson, Jessica Scott-Felder, Amy Sherald, Sophie Zinga, Lina Iris Viktor, Brenna Youngblood and Billie Zangewa.
Fifteen of them created works for the show that are on display for the first time, and those pieces range from photography and paintings to garments and video.
Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, the museum’s executive director and exhibition co-curator, said the show speaks to the ways in which black women carry the history of the African diaspora with them in their hair, clothing and art.
“We were really missing seeing designers from the African diaspora represented in various fashion exhibitions,” Barnwell Brownlee said. “We also wanted to work with artists who are not yet household names. Looking toward the 20th anniversary, we wanted to bring 20 dynamic, engaging artists into the space to talk about the ways that they are using fashion to construct their lives.”
Barnwell Brownlee has been with the museum since 2001 and is a Spelman alumna. When she graduated in 1993, the museum did not exist. She became its first full-time director when she came back to Atlanta after working on her dissertation as a McArthur Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago.
For “Africa Forecast,” she enlisted Seattle-based designer and curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi for her in-depth knowledge of the fashion industry and design. Massaquoi is the former assistant dean of the School of Art & Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and has her own design business called the Oula Co., which is committed to the ethical sourcing of textiles from West Africa, India and Guatemala.
This is not their first time working together — Spelman presented Massaquoi’s dissertation exhibition, “Race in Digital Space,” in 2003.
“In the past 10 years, you’ll see that African fashion and African art in general have been very influential in the contemporary art space, and we wanted to respond to that,” Massaquoi said. “We wanted to focus on makers who create African fashion and artists who work in a variety of mediums who have been influenced by the fashion trends.”
The exhibition took two years to put together and entailed numerous studio visits, meeting artists at fairs, and conversations with gallery owners and collectors to find the right artists. Two of the artists are Spelman alumnae — performance artist Jessica Scott-Felder and photographer Ayana V. Jackson.
“It’s about black female subjectivity on a global scale,” Massaquoi said. “If you look at art history and fashion books, often African artists are left out of those histories. So, this exhibition becomes a work of revisionist history.”
“We’ve been very quiet and contemplating about this idea of being a muse,” Barnwell Brownlee said. “How have black women been muses throughout the history of art, and society? It was important to think about a moment where black women are their own muses and are the subject of their own work.”
The spirit of the exhibition lives online on a Tumblr page (africaforecast.tumblr.com), which serves as a hub of information about black art and identity. Different artists will “take over” the page throughout the exhibition and post content related to the hashtag #BeYourOwnMuse.
There also will be community events with two of the artists, including a conversation Sept. 28 about the work of multimedia artist Fabiola Jean-Louis. Scott-Felder will be doing an interactive performance called “Adornment” Oct. 19 that examines how standards of dress influence the way Spelman students have dressed over the years.
“We wanted to mark our anniversary by working with artists who are dynamic and root us in the contemporary moment,” Barnwell Brownlee said. “As we’re looking toward another decade, it’s a perfect opportunity to think about forecasting. It was also a way to bring a great group of contemporary women artists to Atlanta.”