Africans in America and struggle with identity

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THE label “African-American” wasn’t in Ghada Amer’s vocabulary when the artist arrived in the United States in 1995. Born in Egypt, she spent her formative years in France, where “we never learned it in school.” Living in Harlem—a predominantly black neighbourhood, and once a hub for those relocating from the South—a racial confrontation caused by Ms Amer’s olive skin caused the artist to declare: “I am the real African-American!”

The exchange illustrates the complexities of the term and the myriad ways in which people identify with it. “Africans in America”, a two-part exhibition at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, unpicks its geographical, historical, cultural, political and economic associations further. Liza Essers and Hank Willis Thomas, the curators, have been wise in shunning a didactic approach, arranging the show instead around the biographies of the artists, each of whom has a “very deep personal connection to Africa and America”.

The dozen artists featured have all tread a different path. Brendan Fernandes was born in Kenya, moved to Canada with his family and now resides in Chicago. Wangechi Mutu moved to New York in the 1990s to study at Parsons and Cooper Union and now lives between Brooklyn and Nairobi. Ayana Jackson was born in New Jersey and now has a home and studio in Johannesburg. Some have never resided in Africa. Carrie Mae Weems was born in Portland; Sanford Biggers and Kehinde Wiley are both Los Angeles-born and New York-based.

 The exhibition introduces these disparate strands and stories with “A Place to Call Home (Africa America)” (2009), a polished aluminium map by Mr Willis Thomas. Here, Africa takes the place of South America; Panama borders Morocco, not Colombia. “It’s a kind of fiction,” says Ms Mutu, “but it’s a very beautiful way of tying all of us together because there’s ways that we are bound together, historically and DNA-wise.”

Some pieces deal with these historical binds directly. Alfredo Jaar’s “One Million Points of Light” (2005) depicts the waters that connect Angola, a former Portuguese colony, to Brazil, where slaves were sent to work on sugar plantations. Ms Weem’s “The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin” (2008) points to the civil rights struggle, constructing a scene of shock and mourning in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder. Mr Fernandes’s installation “The End” (2014, pictured) features word art inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s apocalyptic story “The Comet”. Yet other pieces—such as Ms Amer’s “La Leçon de grammaire—RFGA” (2015)—are statements of personal, not shared, experience. The exhibition traverses across topics such as sexuality, conflict, mental health and sport.

Though these pieces are overtly concerned with exploring what it means to be “African-American”, there is little signage or information on the history of the term itself. Social categorisation had moved through “negro”, “coloured” and “black” before the advent of “African-American”. Indeed, its position as the politically correct label of choice began only in the late 1980s, when civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson made a plea for it to replace “black”, arguing that it “puts us in our proper historical context”. The label, he felt, paid homage to the country’s first black settlers and reminded speakers of the actions of European colonialists. Yet some members of younger generations are returning to “black” or “person of colour” as their preferred designation; they see “African-American” as offering a narrow set of geographies and histories.

The exhibition might have benefitted from delving deeper into such ideas. Mr Willis Thomas states that nomenclature is ultimately a question of individual choice, but that “the problem with taking on society’s definitions of who we are is that we buy into the ideas and perceptions and stereotypes that society has created for each identity.” A one-size-fits-all term is incongruent with the complex racial makeup of modern America; this thoughtful exhibition reminds us to consider the multifaceted lives behind the labels.