May 26, 2022–July 30, 2023

Touching Roots

Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas

Africa is at once a point of origin and a myriad of associations—real and imagined—for many Black artists working in the Americas. In the 20th century, some artists self-consciously responded to writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke’s call to engage with “those ancestral arts.” Others continued to practice African artistic traditions passed down through generations.

This exhibition traces narratives of Blackness across the Atlantic world by bringing together work from artists who absorbed and reinterpreted African artistic practices, sacred customs, and cultural expressions. The artworks honor ancestral spirits and Black legacies through painting, sculpture, textiles, and dance. Artists from throughout the Americas are represented—with a special focus on those from or working in New England, like Allan Rohan Crite, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Ifé Franklin, Bryan McFarlane, Karen Hampton, and Stephen Hamilton. Highlights from the collection include Ubi Girl from Tai Region (1972) by Loïs Mailou Jones, African Woman (about 1933) by James Richmond Barthé, Untitled (1943) by Wifredo Lam, and George Jackson (1971) by Kofi Bailey.

Visitors can explore how shared cultural heritages created connections that formed the basis of communities, highlighting the importance of Africa’s presence in the Americas. By turning their gaze inward and toward Africa, Black artists grounded their artistic expressions and infused strength and insight into their work.

This exhibition accompanies “Stories Artists Tell: Art of the Americas, the 20th Century,” a suite of galleries spanning place and time, and exploring different themes surrounding 20th-century art from the Americas.

Outside scholars and collaborators have been essential in the conceptualization and planning of this exhibition. Many thanks to Chenoa Baker, Kyrah Malika Daniels, Napoleon Jones-Henderson, and Stephen Hamilton.

  • Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries (Gallery 332)

Art for This Moment: HiiiPoWeR

Gouache on artist's board depicting silhouettes of the Sphinx, pyramids, a church, jungle foliage, a trumpeter, chained figures, and one figure in broken chains.

Aaron Douglas, Untitled, 1930. Gouache on artist’s board. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. © Aaron Douglas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

For Art for This Moment, MFA Boston’s blog, “Touching Roots” advisor Chenoa Baker considers the importance of color in the exhibition and traces the powerful thread of Pan-Africanism across artworks from three different eras.

Read the Essay

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