Two exhibitions opening in Princeton and Newark this month take a close look at art for discoveries of African cultural and scientific influence. Inspired by collections in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., respectively, each exhibition is designed to prompt discussion by visitors, students, and scholars alike.
In Princeton, “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,” which opens this Saturday, February 16, at the Princeton University Art Museum, examines paintings, sculptures, prints, manuscripts, and printed books from the Renaissance period to reveal the roles that Africans and their descendants played in that society.
In Newark, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” opening on Wednesday, February 27, focuses on the legacy of African astronomy as it is revealed in African art, both traditional and contemporary.
The Princeton show is described as providing a narrative for an often forgotten social group in Europe from the late 1400s to the early 1600s. One goal of the exhibition is to create an avenue for understanding the social issues of color, class, and stereotypes of the day. Africans living in or visiting Europe during this period were artists, aristocrats, diplomats, slaves, servants, and saints: witness St. Benedict, the Moor, who was not only widely revered in his lifetime, but is also one of the African-Europeans of the 1500s with an impact to this day. According to scholars, they came partly because of the European drive for new markets and diplomatic and trade initiatives by African monarchs. In exploring their hitherto little known presence and that of their descendants, the exhibition creates a new perspective on European art.
Originally organized by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the exhibition features some 75 works from the Walters collection as well as items from museums in the United States and Europe, and from private collections. It includes pieces by Rubens, Pontormo, Dürer, Veronese, and Bronzino depicting diverse views from street scenes to portraits created from life.
“We hope this exhibition will be a vehicle for conversations about cultural identity,” says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum. “Through great art, visitors will be able to make personal connections with Africans who lived in Europe 500 years ago.”
Among the exhibition highlights are scenes from daily life such as the Netherlandish painting, Chafariz d’el Rey in the Alfama District, circa 1570-80, showing a square in the city of Lisbon. At this period, people of African descent made up nearly 10 percent of Lisbon’s population, more than anywhere else in Europe and the diversity of their social positions is represented by a slave in chains and a knight on horseback.
Also featured is the painting that is considered to be the first formal portrait of a child of African ancestry in European art: Portrait of Maria Salviate de’ Medici and Giulia de’ Medici, by Jacopo de Pontormo. Painted around 1537, Pontormo’s image shows the little girl Giulia de’ Medici enjoying an aristocratic lifestyle. Her image contrasts with Portrait of an African Slave Woman, attributed to Annibale Carracci in 1580, which shows a serving maid from a fragment of a larger picture. Although unnamed, the woman is a remarkable presence; her facial expression is ambiguous.
“Recognizing the African presence within Renaissance society opens a new window into a time when the role of the individual was becoming recognized — a perspective that remains fundamental today,” says Joaneath Spicer, the Walters’ curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art. “We are just beginning to understand the contributions of people of African ancestry in that society, so this exhibition raises as many questions as it answers.”
Such questions will no doubt be raised when Ms. Spicer joins several others for a panel discussion, moderated by Anthony Grafton, Princeton University’s Henry Putnam University Professor of History, on Thursday, April 25, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in McCormick 101. The other panelists will be Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian born British-American philosopher and novelist and Princeton University’s Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy, and Adam Beaver, assistant professor of history.
The exhibition will run through June 9.
Science Influencing Art
“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” opening at the Newark Museum, is described as the first major exhibition of its kind. The show originated with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art where it ran for six months before coming to Newark, its only appearance in New Jersey.
With more than 70 works from all corners of the continent, the exhibition captures Africa’s early engagement with celestial observations and their connections to the visual arts from the earliest of days. It moves chronologically from a selection of ancient Egyptian pieces by African artists Romuald Hazoumè, Gavin Jantjes, William Kentridge, Marcus Neustetter, and Karel Nel.
Highlights include Dogon sculptures and masks from Mali; chiefly regalia and other Akan arts from Ghana; Tabwa and Luba works from the Democratic Republic of Congo; and models of the cosmos created by Nigerian Yoruba artists.
“African Cosmos highlights the historical contributions of Africans to our knowledge of the heavens,” said Christa Clarke, the Newark Museum’s curator of African art and senior curator, Arts of Africa and the Americas. “The spectacular works on view demonstrate how this knowledge has informed and inspired the creation of art on the African continent for millennia, from ancient Egypt to present-day South Africa.”
As artist-in-residence, Mr, Hazoumé will be installing, Rainbow Serpent, a 12-foot construct of recycled containers used to transport gasoline, on February 21, 22, and 25. He is also scheduled to lead a master class for Newark school children on February 27. Mr. Hazoumé will lead a tour of the exhibit with a special focus on the artist’s large sculpture, followed by a discussion.
“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” will run through August 11 at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street in the Downtown/Arts District of Newark. Hours are: Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Suggested admission: $10 (adults); $6 (children, seniors, students with valid I.D.). For more information, call (973) 596-6550 or visit: www.NewarkMuseum.org.