November 20, 2022–September 3, 2023
The exhibition, book, and discursive programming included in When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting investigate Black self-representation and celebrate global Black subjectivities and Black awareness from pan-African and pan-diasporic perspectives. It audaciously engages renowned contemporary Black philosophers, authors, and poets in conversation with works created by Black artists over the past 100 years by Black artists working across the globe.
The show, which has a concentration on painting, honors the ways in which African and African-descendant artists have conceived, positioned, memorialized, and asserted their experiences. It adds to the critical discussion of intellectual and philosophical movements for African and Black freedom. The 2019 miniseries When They See Us by Ava DuVernay served as the inspiration for the exhibition’s name. Turning “they” into “us” enables a dialectical shift that centers the discussion on Professor Achille Mbembe’s differing theory of self-writing.
Over 200 works of art are on display at the exhibition, which was created by Wolff Architects and comes from 74 institutional and private lenders in 26 different countries. The political power, essence, and resiliency of Black joy are all celebrated in When We See Us. The exhibition is organized around six themes: triumph and emancipation, the everyday, joy and revelry, repose, sensuality, and spirituality. The show combines various methods, revealing deeper historical contexts and networks of a complex and underrepresented genealogy, coming from African and Black modernities. Figurative painting by Black artists has gained new popularity over the past ten years. The show emphasizes connections between creators and works of art across geographical, generational, and conceptual contexts and emphasizes what chief curator Koyo Kouoh calls “parallel aesthetics.”
The exhibition includes works by artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Zandile Tshabalala, Jacob Lawrence, Chéri Samba, Danielle McKinney, Archibald Motley, Ben Enwonwu, Kingsley Sambo, Sungi Mlengeya, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Cyprien Tokoudagba, Amy Sherald, Mmapula Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi and Joy Labinjo, to name a few, and in many instances bring these artists and their practice in dialogue for the first time.
Published to coincide with the exhibition is a hardcover poetic catalogue by Thames & Hudson and Zeitz MOCAA, edited by Kouoh. Richly illustrated with all works selected for the exhibition, it includes a contextual essay by exhibition co-curator Tandazani Dhlakama and four specially commissioned texts by acclaimed female writers Ken Bugul (Senegal), Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia), Robin Coste Lewis (United States) and Bill Kouelany (Republic of Congo).
A parallel discursive program that offers theoretical framings of the project and is delivered as a year-long, multi-vocal webinar series was developed in conjunction with the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In order to explore issues surrounding global Black subjectivity and Black representation from the perspective of artistic production and into the topical considerations pertinent today, the series brings together thought leaders from the continent and its booming diaspora.
Coordinated by Thato Mogotsi, previous discussion topics included The Poetics of Black Figuration, Defining the “We” & the “Us,” A Century of Black Figuration as Representation of Self and Black is Beautiful: Pan-Africanism & the Afropolitan Impulse in Contemporary Art, amongst others. Previous participants have included Prof Huey Copeland, Kimberly Drew, Keyna Eleison, Thelma Golden, Dr Felwine Sarr and Athi Mongezeleli Joja. The webinars are archived on the museum’s YouTube channel.