First Exhibition to Occupy Entire Museum
“The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” will be on view at National Museum of African Art from April 8 through Aug. 2.
Guest curated by internationally acclaimed critic and scholar Simon Njami, with assistance at the National Museum of African Art from curator Karen Milbourne, this monumental exhibition explores the themes of Dante’s epic poem with new commissions and cutting-edge artworks by more than 40 contemporary artists from 18 African countries as well as the African diaspora.
The exhibition occupies all four levels of the museum and covers nearly 20,000 square feet. It features inspirational painting, video projection, installation, sculpture, textiles, printmaking, film, photography and collage by internationally recognized and emerging contemporary artists from the continent and diaspora, including Yinka Shonibare MBE, Wangechi Mutu, Julie Mehretu, Berry Bickle, Pélagie Gbaguidi, and Aida Muluneh whose photographs are the signature work in the exhibition.
“This dramatic exhibition will transform the museum from top to bottom and reveal some of the most compelling topics and approaches in contemporary art today,” said Milbourne.
“The Divine Comedy” was previously shown at Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main and the Savannah College of Art and Design.
For centuries, Dante’s literary work and metaphorical language has been a source of inspiration for visual artists, inspiring European masterpieces by Sandro Botticelli, Eugène Delacroix, William Blake and Salvador Dalí, among many others. Through a variety of media, this exhibition demonstrates how concepts visited in Dante’s poem transcend Western traditions and resonate with diverse contemporary cultures, belief systems and political issues. Overall, the exhibition provides a probing examination of life, death and the continued power of art to express the unspoken and intangible.
Exhibition highlights include:
- First exhibition to occupy four floors of the museum
- Works from 40 of the best emerging and established artists of Africa and its diaspora on display
- A 42-foot canvas by Pélagie Gbaguidi and a dual-channel video installation by Berry Bickle, both appearing for the first time in North America
- Life-size embossed engravings by Christine Dixie from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art
- A mixed-media collage by Wangechi Mutu and photographic series by Youssef Nabil, on view at U.S. venues only
- Videos of the artists discussing their works, only at the National Museum of African Art
About the curators
Simon Njami is an independent curator, lecturer, art critic and essayist. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the cultural magazine Revue Noire. Previously, Njami was the artistic director of the Bamako photography biennial 2000-2010, co-curator of the African pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, and artistic director of the Luanda and Douala triennials and the Lubumbashi Biennale. He has curated numerous exhibitions, including “Africa Remix” (a touring exhibition 2004-07), “A Collective Diary” (2010) and “A Useful Dream” (2010). Njami is author of biographies of James Baldwin (1991) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (2007). “The Divine Comedy” is Njami’s first collaboration with the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Karen Milbourne has been a curator at the National Museum of African Art since May 2008. Since joining the museum, she has curated the exhibitions “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,” “Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane” (2009) and “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira” (2011). She also served as coordinating curator for the exhibitions “Yinka Shonibare MBE” (2010) and “Central Nigeria Unmasked” (2011).
Meet the Artist Series: Julie Mehretu
On Friday, April 24 (6:30 p.m. at the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium), Ethiopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu and Milbourne discuss the artist’s practice. Exploring time and place, Mehretu’s work layers gestural marks and architectural, geographical, and historical symbols to create large-scale, semi-abstract canvases. Presented as part of the Hirshhorn’s ongoing Meet the Artist series, the evening’s conversation is presented in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.
Public programs will accompany the exhibition to engage the museum’s diverse audiences from K-12 to adult. In addition, the exhibition will be accompanied by a poetry competition, art-making workshops, lectures and a newly commissioned performance in July by “Divine Comedy” artist Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter.
Major support for “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” is provided by the Coca-Cola Company. Additional assistance received from the Ford Foundation. The U.S. presentation of the exhibition was co-organized by the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga.
About the National Museum of African Art
The National Museum of African Art is the nation’s premier museum dedicated exclusively to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of Africa’s diverse arts. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. The museum is located at 950 Independence Ave. S.W., near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines. For more information, call (202) 633-4600 or visit the National Museum of African Art’s website. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.
For media requests, contact Eddie Burke at (202) 633-4660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.