If three is a charm, then the National Museum of African Art’s third annual Arts Awards and Gala forecast many visionary promises for the mainstream acceptance and celebration of African art. It also gave a prominent spotlight to members of the DMV’s burgeoning African diaspora population, which within it, holds its own stars and celebrities.
This year, the awardees were Angolan photographer Edson Chagas, futuristic multimedia Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu and philanthropic organization the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
It also provided an opportunity to hear from new museum director Gus Casely-Hayford who took over the helm last year and attended the previous awards ceremony poised to take charge.
“This has been a wonderful year of great successes,” Casely-Hayford said in his introductory comments. “Of magnificent programs that have carried us from the Swahili Coast to Senegal. This is a special place, and I will do all that is in my power to repay your hard work, your loyalty, your support and your generosity,” he added, noting that he lost his mother two months into his tenure, yet felt supported by the Smithsonian Institution and his employees, whom he referred to as “family.”
The awards were hosted by WTTG-TV (Channel 5) anchor Maureen Umeh, who was born in Nigeria. Just having returned from Ghana mere hours before the Friday evening soiree, she sported a classic Ankara outfit made specifically for the occasion.
The reception also once again provided a chance to showcase the area’s unique blend of African diaspora cuisine, this year featuring hors d’oeuvres and a three-course dinner by Kith and Kin Restaurant founder and chef, Kwame Onwuachi. The chef’s unique blend of flavors and influences from his roots in Nigeria, Jamaica and New Orleans, provided a hearty array of dishes using tropical ingredients from gooseberry piri piri salad, to red velvet cake with malted chocolate ice cream and sorrel sauce.
But the crux of the evening belonged to the awardees, all who commented on the sheer weight of the exquisite sculptural prize. In addition to the acceptance of the awards, the elegant evening event featured a conversation between the museum director and Touria El Glaoui, founding director of the contemporary African art fair 1:54.
El Glaoui, daughter of Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, was included among the 100 most powerful women in Africa by Forbes magazine in 2016. The art fair provides high visibility to the continent’s robust contemporary artists whose work is often not displayed as prominently in Western institutions.
The following day after the awards, patrons of the museum were able to hear the two artists, Mutu and Chagas along with the New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, in a conversation moderated by the museum’s curator Karen Milbourne.
In a bold move by a contemporary African artist trained in the West, Chagas moved his entire atelier back to his native Luanda from a career in Lisbon, Portugal, London and New York.
“A lot of the young kids were coming back to Angola from Portugal,” he said. “Because of the situation of the war, my parents preferred that I go to Portugal to study. I didn’t have much of a relationship with African art there, so I started doing photography. That’s what started my relationship with photography,” he added. “I started actually as a photojournalist, and that work took me to London. It made me take an introspective look at my own history.”
Mutu is somewhat of a superstar in the New York and global contemporary art scene, having solo exhibitions in international institutions. Using media such as sculpture, which she studied as an art student, Mutu has branched out to embrace performance, film, drawing and painting in her expansive career.
Her piece, “Tree Woman” made from organic found materials, is part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art along with drawings on paper. She also had a prominent piece in the recent blockbuster exhibit at the museum, “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.”
Mutu also reestablished a studio in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, in addition to her New York studio. She referred to both locations as the legs on which her artwork stands.
“In some ways, everything I have done has mimicked the country I was born in,” she said. “I was born in Nairobi in the ’70s, and that time was a rather idyllic and optimistic time in Kenya. There was so much happening in our country. It gave the impression that it was the perfect example of the African country.
“In the ’80s, things started to change and the president became quite authoritarian and dictatorial,” Mutu continued. “That was the point that the education system changed from the British colonial system to an African system.
“I entered into my teen years in a Kenyan system that was bad for all the right reasons,” she said. “But it was coming from a good place, from the country. I went to Wales in my late teens, though. It is that point that I realized all these art classes I had done were quite pedantic and boring, I did have a teacher who taught me that art is about everything. We could incorporate everything in the sphere of life into the art, which blew my mind.”
Mutu’s work using materials inspired by her home, such as Kenyan tea, volcanic red soil and other culturally significant materials, will figure heavily in the upcoming initiative by the museum showcasing works by contemporary African women artists. An exhibit of their works will be on view in the spring of 2019.