Amidst the construction chaos at the Portland Art Museum for the Rothko Pavilion that will connect the museum’s two larger buildings, Africa Fashion opened to the public on November 19. The exhibition arrives in Portland after a 2022 debut at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and its most recent stint at the Brooklyn Museum.
The Portland iteration of the show, which joins the museum’s expansive current exhibition Black Artists of Oregon, includes more than 50 outfits by 40 designers from 21 different countries and “honors the irresistible creativity, ingenuity, and unstoppable global impact of contemporary African fashions.” In the words of Christine Checinska, the show’s curator and the first curator of African and African diaspora fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the show focuses on “abundance rather than lack,” a reversal of the way Africa is often portrayed in Western contexts.
The exhibition’s Portland installation, thanks to the coordinated efforts of PAM’s Minor White Curator of Photography, Julia Dolan, and the local architectural firm LEVER Architecture, is flawless. The undulating, stepped dais that accommodates the mannequins in the largest space of the exhibition, the Maribeth Collins Gallery, not only facilitates viewing the clothing from all angles but also gives the impression of a sculptural catwalk. The platform doesn’t move, and neither do the mannequins, but the space left me with the undeniable impression of motion and momentum.
Dynamism of display is the only viable approach to showcasing the visual intrigue of the fashions on display. Imane Ayissi’s brilliant magenta satin couture gown that incorporates the traditional grass fringe of the designer’s native Cameroon sets the tone for the exhibition: The fashions on display are as innovative as they are culturally resonant.
In addition to the outfits themselves, the exhibition includes photographs and other ephemera such as magazine covers and commemorative cloth fragments, such as this one depicting Nelson Mandela for the African National Congress from 1991. The vitrines are impeccable; wall colors are chosen perfectly to contrast the visuals of the clothing; written framing gives information both about individual works and relevant context to help viewers.
The timeline of the exhibition begins in the mid-20th century with the African independence movements, and continues to the present day. In her remarks at the press opening on Friday, November 17, Checinska spoke of the show as emblematic of Afrofuturism and Afrotopia, imagining all that Africa is now and can be in the future.
The press preview for Africa Fashion was exactly what I expect in a press preview. There was excitement over the new exhibit, and the assembled journalists, donors, and a couple of invited guests were happy to be there and to listen to the museum director and curators’ framing of the new exhibit. The exhibit itself is exhilarating, and I found myself jockeying for viewing positions to see the displays: Everyone seemed intent on seeing the same thing at the same time.
The opening of Africa Fashion was noteworthy to me in contrast to the last press opening at the Portland Art Museum, for the exhibit Black Artists of Oregon on September 8. Both center work by people of the African diaspora. But as exhibitions, they operate differently and in fact are fundamentally different. Writing a review of Africa Fashion gave me no pause. I’ve been trying to write about Black Artists of Oregon for the last two-plus months.
The event in early September for Black Artists of Oregon was billed as an “opening celebration,” and a celebration it was, with the press preview part tacked on. Instead of the small assortment of people taking notes and thinking about deadlines (journalists) and the collection of people clad in subtly expensive clothes (donors), with a few invited guests, the September event was overwhelmed with non-journalist, non-donor, invited guests. I can’t remember seeing the galleries so full: It felt like a party where almost everyone knew each other, or if they didn’t know each other, they knew someone who knew someone else and needed to be introduced. There was embracing and joy amongst what was, it is relevant to note, a primarily Black audience.
Whereas in the Africa Fashion preview the PAM and curatorial staff spoke first and then we viewed the exhibition, in the Black Artists in Oregon exhibit, which was curated by Intisar Abioto, the galleries were open before the program began. In September, many of the artists and their families were present. I can’t remember ever seeing so many people taking pictures of themselves with the art; posed photographs that captured not just the art in the space but also captured their presence with that art in the space. Maneuvering for viewing position wasn’t as difficult as maneuvering through the space, trying not to be an unwelcome presence in other people’s snapshots.
The energy at the opening festivities was palpable. The curator’s sister, Amenta Abioto, gave a vocal performance, and there were extended performances by dancers and percussionists. The festivities continued throughout the opening weekend and are celebrated in this short video published by the museum. When Intisar Abioto spoke about the exhibition and what it meant to have this exhibition in the Portland Art Museum, I saw more than one attendee moved to tears. Abioto’s speech included the following charge: “I want people to think about what it means for Black people to be in the museum space and feel safe.”
When artist Bobby Fouther spoke, he mentioned that he has always loved being in New York and Washington, D.C., because of the Black arts community in those cities. He said that September night was the first time he felt that community in Portland. It was a remarkable event.
It was also more than two months ago.
I intended to write the Black Artists of Oregon review quickly. It should have been an easy task. The premise of the show is appealing. I like writing about shows at the Portland Art Museum. I’ve written about the work of artists in the show. I’ve edited stories that ArtsWatch has published on other artists in the show. The show boasts the work of students and current and former colleagues from PNCA. I went to, and was impressed by, the opening.
Yet I couldn’t shake the nagging suspicion that that review – the quick one that mentions how important it is to have a show of work by Black artists working in Oregon at the Portland Art Museum and hits on a couple of standout works – would gravely miss the mark. Multiple visits to the show, a long conversation with Abioto, and seeing Africa Fashion helped me to figure out why, and the issues are interrelated: (1) this exhibition is not an endpoint; (2) what is deserving of attention exceeds what is on display.
Black Artists in Oregon is curated by “photographer, dancer, and writer” Intisar Abioto. Abioto has become a fixture of the Portland art scene since her arrival in 2010. She started the Instagram account @theblackportlanders, using street photography and conversation to “show the breadth of the Black communities in Portland, OR.” Her energy and enthusiasm is seemingly limitless. ArtsWatch has featured many of her projects, including a discussion of her projects with Dmae Lo Roberts for a Stage and Studio podcast on ArtsWatch last year.
The current exhibition at PAM grew out of Abioto’s research on Black artists in Oregon, begun in 2018 as part of a Community Storytelling Fellowship grant from Oregon Humanities. The 2019 story from that grant, “Black Mark, Black Legend,” has all the hallmarks and energy of the starting gate of a project deserving years of investment of time and energy. The article features longer profiles of Thelma Johnson Streat and Bobby Fouther, and names several other Black artists working in Oregon whose work isn’t well-documented in the historical record for future consideration.
The leap from the 2019 story to the 2023 exhibition isn’t so much a leap as a rocket launch: The exhibition includes work by 69 artists from Oregon’s past and present. Identifying all of those artists and securing their work for exhibition was a major undertaking. While some of the artists are well-known, many are not, and without Abioto’s tireless enthusiasm for the project they would have been overlooked. Funding for the exhibition came from several prestigious grants, including the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Ford Family Foundation, and others.
The space in the museum is full. The walls, particularly in two long, narrow gallery spaces, feel especially laden; the works are almost crowded together. The congestion opens up in the largest gallery space, purposefully designed to highlight a low stage in the center of the room.
My initial impression of the exhibition in September was that I wanted more information than was available in the museum. Of the 69 artists featured in the show there were far more names I didn’t recognize than those I did, and I wanted to know more about those artists – who they were, what their experiences in Oregon were, how the curator saw the work as contributing to the larger narrative of the Black artistic community in the state.
The Bloomberg Connects audio tour does provide some of this background. (I didn’t have headphones on my first visit, and didn’t realize that there was a transcript available through the app.) The audio clips, attached by numbers or QR codes to individual works, are excellent. Most feature Abioto providing a frame for the artists to talk about their work, often exactly about how it relates to Black identity and lived experience in Oregon. There are also, to date, six episodes of the Art Unbound podcast that feature conversations between Abioto and artists from the exhibition along with DJ Ambush of the Numberz FM. The podcast episodes also pick up these themes.
Engaging with these alternate didactics definitely helped crack open the show for me, particularly in helping me to understand how much time and energy had gone into even getting the works that are in the show amassed in the museum. Of course, Africa Fashion necessitated energy to come to fruition as well, but the resources allotment seems different, the work of a dedicated Senior Curator of African and Diaspora Textiles and Fashion (Dr. Christine Checinska) and a “Project Curator” (Elisabeth Murray). Abioto had support from the museum, but much of the work wasn’t of a kind that museum staff could necessarily assist, it was embodied research, and only by living could Abioto engage in it.
For example, in the audio guide, Abioto explains that she bought one of the works by Ray Eaglin on eBay. Abioto first learned of Eaglin as an artist in conversation with Bobby Fouther as part of her earlier research attached to the Oregon Humanities grant in 2019; she met Fouther soon after arriving in Portland in 2010. Recognizing the eBay find as Eaglin’s work took background knowledge, because while the eBay listing indicated Eaglin’s authorship of his work, the image pictured first was the front side of the canvas, and the work of another artist entirely. Eaglin’s work is on the backside of the canvas, inside the wooden stretches.
The audio guide recounts Eaglin’s daughter’s belief that although her father created close to a 1,000 works of art in his lifetime, the majority have been lost. Abioto follows up with the following statement: “To me, this is indicative of the history of displacement in Portland: When families and communities can’t settle, can’t stay where they are, when Black families are constantly moved and displaced, where are our works? Where are our things held?”
Tracing where things were, who the artists are and were, and even who to ask for the next lead, necessitated an embodiment that is unlike art historical research as I know it in the traditional sense. Abioto couldn’t just search the Portland Art Museum collections, or go to the library, or sift through archives: The information she was after was very conspicuously absent from those places. Instead, gathering the information required being in the community and listening accordingly.
The research connections could only have been forged by Abioto. In the second episode of the Art Unbound podcast, Abioto describes how an artist named Thomas Unthank contacted her with information about Black arts groups from the 1980s, including the Black Artists Guild and the Members Gallery, after finding her through the Oregon Humanities article. Unthank gave Abioto documents and even slides from shows.
In those slides, Abioto saw and was captivated by Nick Jones’ textile works. She was able to find many of the artists on the lists, with the exception of Nick Jones. Later, though, she was explaining to the activist and photographer Richard Brown about how she couldn’t find Jones, and Brown was able to connect her to Jones – which, after all that, was only a phone number and not the work of getting to know Jones and his fascinating story, which weaves together fiber art, the NBA, and a cooking show, among other things: The podcast episode is truly fascinating.
Jones’ rope sculpture, with its braided, frayed and wrapped strands suspended on a spindled rod, graces a dividing wall in the opening room of the exhibition.
These accounts of labor-filled discovery are embedded into the exhibition, but not immediately evident in the galleries. The extent to which the artists in this exhibition are not the ones who have been celebrated or kept in the historical record is a subtext; but one that bears forthright acknowledgment. Abioto pointed to this in her remarks at the opening. There’s a summation in “Black Mark, Black Legend” as well:
“Living as a Black artist helps you read the possibilities, the purposeful absences, determine the situation, its gifts or its detriments, even when the historical proof in the archive or the canon is not there. The historical record doesn’t conceive of us in our full human expression and possibility, if it conceives of us at all.”
Many of the artists in Black Artists of Oregon haven’t been considered by art history or the art establishment as artists – the consideration has been fragmentary, if there has been consideration at all. In the exhibition, there are some longer explanations of the works, but the bulk of those were written by PAM curators for works that were already in the PAM collections, and these are few and far between.
Abioto’s themed subsections – Of Definitions, Collective Presence, Expanse, Being and Kinship, Collective Liberating – are all evocative and offer helpful insight into how she conceived of the larger project. “Collective Liberating” is notable in its embrace of the gerund “ing” rather than the more typical “Liberation.” Abioto felt strongly about indicating that Black liberation is an ongoing process rather than something that has been definitively or conclusively achieved: “I purposefully did not put ‘collective liberation.’”
This notion of ongoing process is central, but with an exhibit of this temporal range – almost 140 years from the earliest work in the show (Grafton Tyler Brown’s painting A Canyon River with Pines and Figures (Yellowstone), from 1886) to the present – and in Oregon, which has such a fraught relationship with its Black community, more context would have been welcome.
Initially, I thought the choice to not include extensive didactics was deliberate. The opening exhibition panel explains that the exhibition was “curated with intentional respect for African diasporic practices of listening, keeping, respecting, and passing on each others’ stories.” I thought that this tied in with the wall didactics – a wall didactic would be an authority transfer, because it externalizes the story in a way that is at odds with the practice of “listening and passing on stories.” When there are context panels, the exhibition tells the story. The danger, of course, is that this could potentially give the impression that this is the Portland Art Museum’s story to tell.
When I spoke with Abioto, she explained that it was a time and capacity issue rather than a deliberate choice. There are plans to add biographic wall tags for each of the artists; it is just part of the exhibition that is still being created. This information will also be in the exhibition catalog that should come out by the end of the show’s run in March.
Abioto is conscious and thoughtful about the exhibition and her own learning process: She doesn’t claim to be an expert curator or art historian. She acknowledged that other scholars in the community had implored her to include more writing, more formal and academically oriented scholarship. She has plans to do this, and given her prodigious skill and capacity, I have no qualms that it will happen.
Formal writing and more traditional didactics will be a welcome addition, but harping on this doesn’t embrace the exhibition’s iterative quality. It has a sense of an ongoingness that I don’t think of as typical with exhibitions. Usually the exhibition is an endpoint, the public display of all of the making and research. This is certainly the case with Africa Fashion: It feels complete, tidy, and in that case an especially shiny, package.
With Black Artists of Oregon, though, the exhibition can’t be complete, because it is an exhibition of a community that is not only historical but also exists in the present and into the future. It’s why the opening was about who was in the galleries and how the galleries were occupied and equally why so much of Abioto’s social media has been showing the Black community in the galleries with the art. Black Artists of Oregon is about so much more than what is on the walls at 1219 S.W. Park Avenue.
Abioto acknowledged this in our conversation, noting that the project started out as a journalistic enterprise, and while it may be an exhibit now, there’s room for transformation: “But what if it isn’t an exhibit? Or it’s not only an exhibit? What if the charge of the challenge of this is that we have gotten this show up? [Instead,] Who is coming into this space? What are their thoughts? How are people being challenged? It is an exhibit now but what else will it be?”
In the midst of all of my not writing about Black Artists of Oregon, another show went up at PAM at the end of October: Throughlines: Connections in the Collection. Slated to run through November 2024, the exhibition was billed by the museum as “a fresh look at the Portland Art Museum’s collections by bringing together artworks from diverse geographies, cultures, and time periods that do not typically share a gallery. … Leading with a sense of curiosity and wonder, the curatorial team searched the collections, reflecting on the ways art connects everyone across time.”
Throughlines consists of themed galleries, including ones centered on the ideas of “Pose,” “Environment,” and “Color.” I’m all for cross-geographical and cross-temporal exhibitions of the permanent collections for any museum, and I’ve advocated for this as a solution to some of the larger historical institutional inequities that plague Western art museums, particularly in the United States. The themes here felt flimsier than I was hoping for, especially “Color,” but I understand this installation is a temporary solution, more intended to bridge the gap during the renovation and expansion of the museum than to offer a new and comprehensive vision for display.
What did surprise me about Throughlines, though, was the extent to which I saw the display of particular artworks not only in relationship to one another as connected to the overarching theme, but also in terms of their previous contexts of display at the museum. For example, “Environments” included Francesco Fidanza’s painting Vesuvius Erupting at Night, which was featured in the 2020 Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art show; and Chris McCaw’s Sunburned GSP #428 (Sunset, Sunrise, Arctic Circle, Alaska), which was included in the 2021 Ansel Adams in Our Time show. I could give similar provenance for most works in the show, and that provenance affirms the museum’s institutional history and authority: It is embedded in the display.
This is entirely appropriate for Throughlines, since the works are all pulled from the museum’s permanent collection. For Black Artists of Oregon and even for Africa Fashion, the museum’s history and authority is another prospect entirely.
When installed in Portland, or even Brooklyn, for that matter, the exhibition Africa Fashion loses some important institutional context. It was put together by the Victoria and Albert Museum of London. In the case of many countries in Africa, the independence movements that open the exhibition were a breaking away from the British Empire.
This display of African fashion and textiles is the first in the 170-year history of the V&A. The show shaped the museum’s permanent collections as well; the museum acquired 70 pieces due to the show. This investment is an intriguing shift for the V&A considering the museum’s undeniable connection to Britain’s colonial history. In Portland, it’s a lovely show, but it loses some of this historical import.
With Black Artists of Oregon there is a not unrelated tension: Part of what every short (and timely) review of the show has pointed out is the importance of the Portland Art Museum staging an exhibition of work by Black artists.
Abioto is aware of this. We spoke about her concern that the “site becomes another voice” and about working to not be “subsumed by the bigness of the institution.” The energy of Black Artists of Oregon is not the Portland Art Museum’s to control. Abioto has purposefully worked in tandem with PAM to bring this exhibition to fruition, but the larger project isn’t about the exhibition, it’s about community. The exhibition is a waystop rather than an endpoint.
At the end of one of the galleries is a mural made from a photograph by Richard Brown, in which a girl, I’d guess four years old or so, presses her hand against a vitrine and gazes up at an African mask on a pedestal. The girl’s expression is one of skepticism: Her lips are twisted over; she’s giving what I can only describe as a bit of side-eye. I imagine her internal dialogue as asking the figure, “What are you doing here? How did you get in that case? What am I doing here? What’s this all about, anyway?”
Abioto laughed when I asked her about the girl’s expression. Apparently it wasn’t on any other interviewer’s list; no one else asked. She says she didn’t “purposely put it there that way,” but it seems too perfect to me. I can almost hear the girl advising: “This exhibition, this is what’s here now but if you think that’s the whole story, you’ve totally missed the point.”