When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting comprises an exhibition, publication and discursive programming that explores Black self-representation and celebrates global Black subjectivities and Black consciousness from pan-African and pan-diasporic perspectives. It boldly brings together artworks from the last 100 years, by Black artists working globally, into dialogue with leading Black thinkers, writers and poets who are active today.
With a focus on painting, the exhibition celebrates how artists from Africa and its diaspora have imagined, positioned, memorialised and asserted African and African-descent experiences. It contributes to critical discourse on African and Black liberation, intellectual and philosophical movements. The title of the exhibition is inspired by Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, the 2019 miniseries. Flipping ‘they’ to ‘we’ allows for a dialectical shift that centres the conversation in a differential perspective of self-writing as theorised by Cameroonian political scientist Professor Achille Mbembe.
The exhibition, designed by Wolff Architects, features more than 200 works of art from 74 institutional and private lenders located in 26 countries. When We See Us celebrates the resilience, essence, and political charge of Black joy. The exhibition is organised around six themes: The Everyday, Joy and Revelry, Repose, Sensuality, Spirituality, and Triumph and Emancipation. Figurative painting by Black artists has risen to a new prominence over the last decade and this exhibition connects these practices, revealing deeper historic contexts and networks of a complex and underrepresented genealogy, stemming from African and Black modernities. The exhibition highlights relationships between artists and artworks across geographic, generational and conceptual contexts, and foregrounds what lead curator Koyo Kouoh refers to as ‘parallel aesthetics’.
The exhibition includes works by artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Zandile Tshabalala, Jacob Lawrence, Chéri Samba, Danielle McKinney, Archibald Motley, Ben Enwonwu, Kingsley Sambo, Sungi Mlengeya, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Cyprien Tokoudagba, Amy Sherald, Mmapula Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi and Joy Labinjo, to name a few, and in many instances bring these artists and their practice in dialogue for the first time.
Published to coincide with the exhibition is a hardcover poetic catalogue by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with Zeitz MOCAA and edited by Kouoh. Richly illustrated with all works selected for the exhibition, it includes a contextual essay by exhibition co-curator Tandazani Dhlakama and four specially commissioned texts by acclaimed female writers Ken Bugul (Senegal), Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia), Robin Coste Lewis (United States) and Bill Kouelany (Republic of Congo).
The exhibition is accompanied by a Sonic Translation compiled by South African composer and sound artist Neo Muyanga.
Conceived in collaboration with the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a parallel discursive programme provides theoretical framings of the project and is presented as a year-long, multi-vocal webinar series. The series brings together thought leaders from the continent and its thriving diaspora to address topics around global Black subjectivity and Black representation from the premise of artistic production and into the topical considerations relevant today.
Coordinated by Thato Mogotsi, previous discussion topics included The Poetics of Black Figuration, Defining the ‘We’ & the ‘Us’, A Century of Black Figuration as Representation of Self and Black is Beautiful: Pan-Africanism & the Afropolitan Impulse in Contemporary Art, amongst others. Previous participants have included Prof Huey Copeland, Kimberly Drew, Keyna Eleison, Thelma Golden, Dr Felwine Sarr and Athi Mongezeleli Joja. The webinars are archived on the museum’s YouTube channel.
The exhibition and accompanying publication have been made possible through the generous support of our presenting sponsor, Gucci.