“Heroes: Principles of African Greatness” recently made its debut at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art to great acclaim in the District.

With nearly 50 artworks from more than 40 artists, the exhibition tells the story of key heroic principles and people in Africa’s arts and history. It also invites visitors to consider the core values of leadership and embodied in the art. Each artwork in the exhibition is paired with a historic African person, a “hero in history,” who embodies the thematic value shown in the artwork.

“The exhibition comes at a crucial time in the public understanding of Africa and its arts and history,” said Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the museum.

“Coinciding with two momentous historical anniversaries — 400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved African laborer in North America and the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections — it invites visitors to consider both the horrors and hopes at work in the continent’s history,” he said. “Through the stories they tell, the artists assembled here challenge us to be our best selves.”

The exhibit shares the stories of key heroic figures in African arts and history by pairing each artwork with a particular African hero.

From well-known figures, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Desmond Tutu and the Queen of Sheba to modern-day disruptors including writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and LGBTQ activist and filmmaker Beverly Palesa Ditsie, “Heroes” depicts the values of leadership — justice, integrity, generosity, and empathy — in a fresh new way by focusing on the artists as storytellers and teachers.

“Heroes” features well-known artworks from the museum’s permanent collection, as well as several new acquisitions. Among the new works on display is a work by former South African president Nelson Mandela. The watercolor depicts the rock quarry in the prison on Robben Island where he was exiled for many years and is a haunting embodiment of the sacrifices he made in the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

“Heroes expresses the National Museum of African Art’s commitment to the dignity, complexity and universally accessible excellence of African art history,” said Kevin Dumouchelle, curator at the museum. “Further, it stands as a testament to the museum’s commitment to the telling of unique, compelling and specific historical African stories. The artworks in “Heroes” invite us to imagine our roles in building a new future.”

Visitors to the exhibition can engage further with the artworks on their smartphones using the Smithsonian-developed, web-based HI application. Visitors can scan a work of art to discover an added layer of digital content, including videos, images and key facts connecting the artworks to their corresponding “heroes in history.” Public programs will accompany the exhibition throughout its run to engage the museum’s diverse audiences K-12 to adult.

About Curator Kevin D. Dumouchelle

Dumouchelle joined the National Museum of African Art in October 2016. He was the project lead for “Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts” (2017), the museum’s award-winning permanent galleries, along with chief curator Christine Mullen Kreamer and curator Karen E. Milbourne. He was the coordinating curator for “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean” (2018) and “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” (2018), as well as the upcoming exhibition “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange in Medieval Saharan Africa,” which opens April 11, 2020.

Dumouchelle was at the Brooklyn Museum for a decade as the curator in charge of the arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands. He earned a doctorate, Master of Philosophy, and master of arts in art history and archaeology from Columbia University after earlier degrees from Georgetown and Oxford University.

About the National Museum of African Art

The National Museum of African Art is the only museum in the world dedicated solely to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of Africa’s arts across time and media. The museum’s collection of over 12,000 artworks spans more than 1,000 years of African history and includes a variety of media from across the continent — from sculpture and painting, to photography, pottery, jewelry, textile, video and sound art.

For more information, call (202) 633-4600 or visit the National Museum of African Art’s website: www.Africa.si.edu.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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