African consciousness illuminated

A dynamic new exhibition probes the way black culture wishes to represent itself.
Posted 14 Nov 22 By Design Indaba Craft Creative Work / Design News Comments

An exhibition of art depicting black representation from the 1920s through to today is on this summer at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.

The title of the exhibition, ‘When We See Us’, was borrowed from a 2019 crime miniseries based on the Central Park jogger case – the rape of a white woman in Manhattan's Central Park in April 1989. Co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay, the miniseries explores the lives and families of the five men who were falsely accused of the attack and convicted on charges of assault. Their sentences were later vacated, and they were awarded a settlement in 2014.

As a creative reference point, the exhibition draws on the notion of wrongful treatment to focus on ways to affirm agency – essentially, a feeling of control over one’s actions and their consequences – and to bolster self-determination across the full scope of the black landscape.

Subtitled ‘A Century of Black Figuration in Painting’, the exhibition invites visitors to delve into the concept of figuration – the act or process of creating a figure or a representation in figures. The concept applies, especially, when it comes to depictions of violence – both up to the minute and in numerous forms, against black bodies, minds and hearts.

By no means limited when it comes to the nationalities included or the years covered, ‘When We See Us’ exposes the interconnection between the vast and often underrepresented genealogies of African and black thematics. These extend, in an all-encompassing way, from the 1960s Ecole de Dakar in Senegal and the 1970s Nsukka School in Nigeria, the Kumasi School in Ghana that began in the 1950s to the British Black Arts Movement founded in the 1980s; and from the Department of Fine Art at Makerere University in Uganda to the Federated Union of Black Artists right here in South Africa.

It is, of course, ambitious to include as many as 200 works of art from over the past hundred years in one groundbreaking artistic display. Yet without this all-encompassing pan-African and pan-diasporic modus operandi, many of the subjectivities and notions of black consciousness that seek exploration and require understanding could have been lost.

So when you walk through the poignant spaces of the Zeitz MOCAA, you’re encouraged to take in the painted figures, artistic shapes and heartfelt portraits of artists of the calibre of Nigeria’s Njideka Akunyili Crosby, the USA’s Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley and Danielle McKinney, Chéri Samba from Democratic Republic of Congo, British-Nigerian Joy Labinjo, and our own Zandile Tshabalala – and to mull over how they continue to celebrate and assert what we’ve been through, as individuals and a collective.

Proudly supported by Gucci, 'When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting' is on at the Zeitz MOCAA from 20 November 2022 until 3 September 2023. See more here:

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Credits: Zandile Tshabalala, Antoine Obin, Mickalene Thomas and Vuza Ntoko