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Africana at 40: Looking Back, Moving Forward

This exhibition is a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, a leading institution within the Black/Africana Studies movement in the United States. The Africana Studies and Research Center emerged in the late 1960s, primarily resulting from the concerns of African American students and faculty about the Eurocentric focus of American universities. These students desired to seek knowledge and an understanding of African and African diaspora history, politics, and culture and to examine the role of Africans and people of African descent across the world in the development of human civilization. Such concerns are in essence similar to the impetus that gave rise to many African and African diaspora movements in the artistic and literary domains. In theory and practice, African, African American, and other African diasporic artists have been a major driving force in the growth of remarkably rich, complex, and diverse aesthetics and styles of art and movements. They produced a range of authentic voices and a rich body of artwork that is truly trans-African as well as transnational in its visual vocabulary and its modernist and postmodernist aesthetic impulse and outreach. 

This exhibition does not claim to be comprehensive or representative of all the groups, movements, and artists who worked in different locations and centers across Africa and its diaspora. Rather, it focuses selectively on works drawn from the collection of the Johnson Museum. The exhibition includes representative sampling of works of pioneer masters such as Henry O. Tanner, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Wifredo Lam, and Ibrahim El Salahi, as well as the visionary conceptualist David Hammons, whose impressive body of work exerted a tremendous influence on, and opened the doors to, a younger generation of artists and movements across Africa and its diaspora to enter the arena of global art circulation and validation. The exhibition also includes works by younger artists, such as Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, Yinka Shonibare, and Renée Cox, which reflect the emerging discourses in the field of African and African diaspora art and visual culture from race, gender, and feminist perspectives. Such works also reflect the different strategies these artists have adopted in subverting, or inverting, negative and stereotypical representation of the black in popular culture and the white imaginary, as well as provide an insight into how such discourses are evoked in mapping absence and presence within postmodernist and conceptualist frameworks.

Salah M. Hassan
Goldwin Smith Professor and Director, Africana Studies and Research Center/
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies