‘Touching roots’ and connecting cultural histories at the MFA
The exhibition ‘Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas’ helps reveal a parallel history of both 20th-century American art and of the museum itself
There’s important precedent here. “Touching Roots” is a distant echo of “Afro-American Artists: Boston and New York,” the grudgingly staged, mostly forgotten, and irrefutably groundbreaking exhibition of Black contemporary art hosted by the MFA in 1970. Driven forward by the artist and activist Dana Chandler and curated by Edmund Barry Gaither, the director of the then brand-new NCAAA, the show was the banner event of a burgeoning Black art movement that blossomed alongside the Black Power movement of its day.
“Touching Roots” transcends that time with works as recent as 2018. But it shares a unifying principle in its belief in the power of continuity and shared cultural history (the exhibition notes include a tribute to Gaither, who was a consultant for the museum until 2020). With just 35 works, it’s a short lesson in formative elements of Black American art in the 20th century and its yearnings — for heritage, for connection, and simply to be seen at all.
Several pieces fit the ethos of the Harlem Renaissance, the post-World War I blossoming of Black American culture that gave us artists and poets like Romare Bearden and Langston Hughes. As the movement evolved, a yearning for roots took hold. “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” the essay by Alain LeRoy Locke, urged Black artists to build a Black American culture on the foundation of their African heritage. Its ideas underpin “Touching Roots,” one generation to the next.
For me, an untitled watercolor by Aaron Douglas, from 1930, sets the tone. With its monochromatic palette of icy blue-gray, Douglas works in silhouette to set a scene of struggle and triumph. Pyramids in the background connect to Black ancestral origins along the Nile; a figure rises to the light above workers in chains. A church steeple evokes divine providence — freedom as God’s will.
Loïs Mailou Jones, a Bostonian, counts four pieces here, spanning nearly 40 years of her career that help chart the course Locke favored: The earliest, “Jeanne, Martinique,” 1938, is a portrait of an African woman who hosted literary salons in Paris, where Jones was then living, that helped connect a cohort of Black Americans to those cultural roots; the latest, “Ubi Girl from Tai Region,” 1973, seems to realize those early teachings with its tableaux of West African motifs. Its title figure, a woman with a white-painted face, makes a crucial point about a culture very much alive, thriving, and struggling for autonomy; in the 1960s and ′70s, Black activists in the US saw African countries fighting for independence from their colonizers as analogous to the civil rights movement here.
The show combs the MFA archives for synergies, both material and cultural. Strip-weaving, a West African tradition, infiltrated Black American textile practice most famously in Gee’s Bend, Ala., where artists such as Annie Mae Young made patchwork quilts, like the one here, that are loose, vibrant, and distinctly American. Bearden’s stirring “Family,” 1967-68, is a collage piece that adapts a strip-weaving from the African Sahel region in an homage to matriarchal culture. Allan Rohan Crite, another Bostonian, transposes African matriarchal tradition to his home here in Boston with “Ancestor Figure, Bambara, Mali, Wood,” 1974, a drawing of a Malian carved figure of a mother and child paired with a Black woman and her baby against the distinctive backdrop of Boston row houses.
There are other highlights over which to linger, but for me, the key to “Touching Roots” is how rooted it is, right here in Boston. The museum has let slip that moment in 1970 when, against its will, the MFA was, however briefly, the center of Black American art. It’s much too late to seize that moment, with generations of Black artists since then now stratospheric superstars, far out of reach.
But can the museum be a rallying point for Black artists here in Boston? Stephen Hamilton, a young textile artist with a heroic impulse, gives me hope. His work here, from his “Founders Project,” is called “Dashawn Borden as Sundiata Keita,” from 2018, a regal portrait of a Black man, swathed in finery, on hand-woven cloth. The project is gracefully ennobling: Hamilton takes Boston high school students and recasts them as the mythic founders of African ethnic groups from which the diaspora flowed. The project embodies the best hope of “Touching Roots,” with a chapter yet unwritten: It imbues young people with deep roots, and fills them with pride and possibility from which to grow.