Peninsula Fine Arts Museum (Virginia) commemorates the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first Africans with two dynamic exhibitions

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A report by Denise M. Watson for The Daily Press.

Before Europeans began exploiting Africa for its labor, they found the continent’s indigenous art a valuable commodity.

Explorers discovered kingdoms with gorgeous ceremonial regalia, intricate metal work and sculptures carved from ivory, which would be dubbed “white gold” in Europe.

Then the Portuguese and other Europeans initiated the slave trade that would transform the continent and its art.

The Peninsula Fine Arts Center on Saturday will open two shows that examine those facets of African history. The winter exhibitions also commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in British North America.

One exhibit, “African Art: Power and Identity,” highlights the vibrant art culture that existed in West African kingdoms and how it evolved after colonization. The first Africans came from the area now known as Angola.

The second exhibition is a contemporary installation, “Cash Crop,” which is a harrowing examination of the slave trade with 15 life-size statues that are shackled and bound to represent the millions of Africans who were sold across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries.

The works will be on display until April 28.

Diana Blanchard Gross, curator for PFAC, said the exhibitions show two realities. “Cash Crop” is a “pretty intense” look at the human price paid by countries in their quest for wealth.

“Power and Identity” is a reminder “of the work that was created in Africa, and people might not realize the amazing craftsmanship and work that was in Africa,” she said.

Gross culled several museums and private collections, including Longwood University and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, to illustrate the variety of work by African artists.

Richard Woodward is the founding curator of the African Art collection at VMFA and will give a talk at PFAC next Thursday, Jan. 24.

Part of his lecture will help visitors understand the deep art legacy that comes from the cradle of civilization. The VMFA has pieces that go back to the first millennium B.C. Africa has more than 3,000 languages and more than 54 modern nations that evolved because of colonization.

Art was often created for beauty’s sake, commissioned by African rulers and others, including famed Italian patrons, the Medici family of Florence, during the European Renaissance.

Art works also had political, spiritual and religious purposes.

One of the pieces on display from VMFA is a “Dwa,” a stool that was likely commissioned by an African high-ranking military official. It was made between the 19th and 20th centuries and hails from the Akan culture of Ghana. Ghana was once called the “Gold Coast” before the name gave way to the “Slave Coast” moniker.

The seat shows African and European influences. The seat is covered with a hammered brass sheeting while its support is decorated with a powder keg and two rifles, which would have come from Europe. The center field depicts three captives being led away by captors who are wearing hats that look European in design. The stool also has the Sankofa symbol, a bird with its head turned backward to look over its tail.

It has come to mean to move forward but not forget the past, Woodward said.

“That’s the kind of lesson you can take from this stool,” he said.

The lesson of “Cash Crop” is more obvious.

Artist Stephen Hayes cast the 15 concrete figures using men, women and children models from his family and friends. Each figure represents 1 million people; researchers have estimated that up to 15 million Africans were taken from Africa to the Caribbean and Americas during the arduous trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ten to 15 percent are believed to have died on the journey.

Hayes said in a 2017 interview that he got the idea for the project while in graduate school and seeing the drawing of the Brookes, a British slave ship. The sketch showed the hold of the ship with African bodies crammed into every inch of space. More bodies meant more money at market, especially when traders knew many would die from trauma, disease or suicide during the weekslong transport.

Each of the figures stands with its back against a wooden frame that is shaped like a ship. The Brookes cargo hold is carved into each frame.

The statues are bound in chains and spaced apart so that visitors can walk among them. One child figure appears to be crying, with what looks like rust streaks trailing along his cheeks.

The figures are bound with chains to a wooden pallet in which the Latin phrase “E Pluribus Unum” – the motto on U.S. currency – is carved.

Hayes said that is a nod to today and a statement of how industrialized countries and companies continue to exploit developing countries for cheap labor.

Hayes said in the interview, “Who will be the next cash crop?”

?Denise M. Watson, 757-446-2504, denise.watson@pilotonline.com

If you go

African Art: “Power and Identity” and “Cash Crop,” Peninsula Fine Arts Center, 101 Museum Drive, Newport News

Runs from Sat., Jan. 19 – April 28, 2019.

Cost $7.50 adult; discounts are available for seniors, students, teachers, AAA members and active duty military. $4, children ages 6-12; children 6 and younger are free.

Special programming:

“Cash Crop” artist, Stephen Hayes, will offer an artist workshop on Sat., Jan. 19, 10 a.m.

Richard Woodward, African Art curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, will give a curator talk on 1 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24.

Free Family Community Day, Sat., Jan. 26. Includes mudcloth-making activity and printing of adrinka symbols, African and African-American storytelling.

Visit www.pfac-va.org for more information or call 757-596-8175.

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