Harlem’s Africa Center led a media tour of its new exhibit “States of Becoming” last week. The Center’s new show displays the work of a select 17 African artists who have come to live in the U.S. within the last 30 years. 

Curated by Ethiopian-born painter Fitsum Shebeshe, the exhibition is designed to look at how culture, geography, and local customs guide the way African artists create art in the U.S. 

The artists with work on display are: Gabriel C. Amadi-Emina, Kearra Amaya Gopee, Kibrom Araya, Nadia Ayari, Vamba Bility, Elshafei Dafalla, Masimba Hwati, Chido Johnson, Miatta Kawinzi, Dora King, Helina Metaferia, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Yvonne Osei, Kern Samuel, Amare Selfu, Tariku Shiferaw, and Yacine Tilala Fall. Shebeshe said their work can be divided into three categories: artists who have moved to the U.S. and whose work has conformed to U.S. cultural styles; artists who remain connected to Africa and travel back to the continent to bring African elements to their work; and first-generation African artists born in the U.S. who are connecting with African art and artists.

Miatta Kawinzi, one of the exhibitions’ artists who was in attendance for the media tour, spoke about her two video installation pieces that combine film, poetry, and found objects to confront ideas about the African diaspora. In her piece “SHE GATHER ME” (2021; HD color video & 16mm color film transferred to video with two-channel audio, wood chairs, silver mylar floor) the artist has poetry and film of landscapes from Detroit, Johannesburg, New York City, Santo Domingo, and Tulsa showing on screens set before large blue rocking chairs. Visitors are welcome to experience the work––which is titled after a line from Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved”––by sitting on the rocking chairs.

Kawinzi was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to a Liberian mother and a Kenyan father; she has lived in New York City for the past 13 years. “My work has been contextualized by thinking about first-generation American artists of African descent,” she said. “I really think a lot about this term of ‘African-hyphen-American’ and how, especially when I was growing up, that was the term for Black folks. It’s a very broad, general term that I’ve always felt does not really encompass the specificities of everyone’s various identities and histories and lineages, and so that’s something that I deal with in my work.”

“States of Becoming” curator, Shebeshe, who is now based in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C area, spoke about the challenges many African migrants to the U.S. face while living here. African migrants often find themselves having to accept a sense of otherness––of having come from nations where almost everyone is Black with only variations of skin tones, and now living in a place where you are not a part of the majority and may find yourself questioned about your presence in certain spaces. 

It’s a new sensation that Shebeshe said he experienced at one point while living for a short period in a predominantly white neighborhood in Chicago. “I was really feeling a little bit suffocated because during my stay there, I happened to see only one Black person. It was a white neighborhood. You know, nobody tried to tell me that I’m Black. But it’s like the way you see yourself in an unfamiliar territory makes you feel like the location you live in makes you comfortable, or at the same time, a little bit discomfortable.” African artists making a new life in America are being challenged to look at how they see themselves, and how they identify.

The Africa Center is located at 1280 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10029. “States of Becoming” is on view through April 2 on a “pay what you wish” basis. For more information visit www.theafricacenter.org.

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