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New Amistad Exhibition on African Americans Abroad

Danish Landscape by William H. Johnson, circa 1931. Oil on canvas, 23x28 in.

Carnets de voyage: Des Afro-Américains à l’étranger (Travel Diaries: African Americans Abroad), illuminates the international travel experiences of African Americans and their interactions with other individuals of the African diaspora. Throughout American history, traveling abroad often represented a bittersweet turn for black Americans. Dealing with diminished rights due to racism and discrimination, many African Americans left the U.S. after slavery for various reasons. Some of these reasons included traveling for educational and professional opportunities, for political motivations, or fighting to improve the life conditions of others within the international community. This exhibition serves as an exploration of African American educators, artists, missionaries, activists, soldiers, journalists, and Foreign Service workers, many of whom traveled due to their work, occupations, or for leisurely pursuits. By viewing evidence of their globetrotting through photographs, diaries, notebooks, and other writings, we are able to piece together how their journeys shaped them and how they shaped people’s perceptions of African Americans.

Also on display are pieces from Amistad’s art collection. The exhibition features artwork that was conceived because of the mobility and international perspectives of its creators. Many of the artists represented in Carnets de voyage were black émigrés and expatriates that took asylum in places such as France, the Netherlands, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and in countries throughout Africa. They included individuals such as Sam Middleton, Ben Jones, Louis Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, and William H. Johnson. Rather than being marginalized by the bigotry and inequality that disenfranchised them in the United States, some of these artists used their work as a platform to champion social justice. Others simply used the power of their palette to illustrate their aesthetic aptitude. For their efforts, expatriates were rewarded with unparalleled patronage. The popularity of black artists, particularly during the interwar years, gave birth to a thriving artistic industry both in Europe and across the Americas.

Harry Edward in Vietnam, 1958.

Materials within the exhibition date from the end of the 19th century through the 20th century and demonstrate that African Americans placed themselves within a transnational context where they thought and acted on a global scale. The exhibition is on display in the Center’s Reading Room and mezzanine Exhibition Gallery now through April 21, 2017. Public hours are 8:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday-Friday and 9:00 am to 1:00 pm Saturday. The exhibition is free.

Images from Amistad’s art collection and from the Harry Edwards papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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