Cross-Cultural Exchanges from Vietnam, Ethiopia, the Caribbean

by Pelican Press
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Big, globe-leaping historical art shows are still scarce, post-pandemic. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art persists in doing them, and no one does big and global better. I have high expectations for Africa and Byzantium (Nov. 19-March 3, 2024), a roots-and-routes exhibition that promises to illuminate cultural exchanges made between medieval African kingdoms in Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia and the Byzantine Empire across the Mediterranean. There are sure to be surprises and beauties beyond compare.

Relatedly, I’ll be heading to Baltimore to catch Ethiopia at the Crossroads at the Walters Art Museum (Dec. 3-March 3), which has a superlative collection of Ethiopian religious art. When the Walters-organized exhibition “African Zion” appeared at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in 1994 it blew me away. Three decades later, some of the same treasures will be supplemented by examples of outstanding work being made in Ethiopia today.

The fall will be rich in contemporary solo museum exhibitions. I’ve been waiting for someone to organize a survey of the photographer An-My Le, who was born in Vietnam and came to the United States as a refugee in 1975. Her subtle images of a world soaked in militarism (Vietnam War re-enactments staged on what were once Confederate battlefields) will be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers (Nov. 5-March 16), the two rivers of the title being the Mekong and the Mississippi.

Charles Gaines: 1992-2023 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (Nov. 16-March 17) will pick up where an earlier Studio Museum in Harlem retrospective of this pioneering Conceptualist’s work left off. And his art — politically-charged, harmonically-infused — has become more varied and imaginative year by year into the present. (His monumental 2022-23 sculpture, “Moving Chains,” installed on Governors Island, Manhattan, was a stunner.)

Another protean, longstanding contemporary career in full flower will be documented in María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Behold at Brooklyn Museum (Sept. 15-Jan. 14). Born in Cuba in 1959, and educated there before coming to the United States, Campos-Pons’s experimental interweaving of photography, painting and performance filters references to the island’s colonial past and the living tradition of Afro-Cuban Santeria through the prism of her own life.

I look forward to Michael Richards: Are You Down? at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (Sept. 8-Jan. 7), a survey of a Brooklyn-born artist of Jamaican and Costa Rican descent who died at 38 when he was trapped in his studio high in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was a talent of tremendous promise and significant early accomplishment. His 1999 sculpture “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian,” a memorial to a Tuskegee airman — based on a cast of the artist’s body — pierced by small fighter planes, is a now-classic image of desire, death and transcendence.

We’ll enter fully into the mystic with William Blake: Visionary,” a gathering of the otherworldly 19th-century artist’s paintings and prints of Heaven and Hell, and Earth in between, which will be winging its way into the Getty Center, Los Angeles from London (Oct. 17-Jan. 14).

And we’ll find a potent dose of homegrown uplift in Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Oct. 4-January), a first institutional overview of the experimental filmmaker and music ethnologist (1923-1991), whose compilations of American folk music sparked a national craze in the 1950s and whose cosmologically charged films and collages anticipated psychedelic developments later in the ’60s.

I plan to be first in line for the opening of Impossible Music at the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh (Sept. 30-Dec. 10), an exhibition of sound, video, drawing and performance designed to test the boundaries of “visual arts” as a descriptive category. In 2016 one of the show’s curators, Raven Chacon, made an audio recording of a silent vigil by women protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock, N.D. Only the sounds of breathing, rustling bodies and the whir of surveillance helicopters are audible. Never has “silence” been more resounding. (Chacon went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in music last year.)

My 2023-24 go-to list includes other potentially horizon-expanding group shows, all historical. During the “global” moment a few decades back New York museums, large and small, regularly gave us valuable introductory samplings of unfamiliar (here, anyway) contemporary work from Asia. Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s-1970s at the Guggenheim Museum (Sept. 1-Jan. 7) is in the line of such shows and welcome in the present international spotlighting of Korean culture.

Revising history is one of the mandates driving two shows. Out of Bounds: Japanese Women Artists in Fluxus at Japan Society (Oct. 13-Jan. 21) will be the first exhibition to consider the contribution made by women to the New York-based international avant-garde Fluxus movement of the 1960s. Shigeko Kubota (1937-2015), Yoko Ono, Takako Saito and Mieko Shiomi are the marquee players. And Groundswell: Women of Land Art at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas (Sept. 23-Jan. 7), featuring a dozen women — Alice Aycock, Beverly Buchanan, Agnes Denes and Maren Hassinger head the roll-call — will critically rewrite longstanding textbook versions of another movement of that era — this one once dominated by big-boys, and big-footing.

Speaking of history and how it gets told, Brazil’s São Paulo Museum of Art, or MASP, will open the latest in its series of remarkable omnibus “Historias” exhibitions this fall (Oct. 20-Feb. 25). Past editions have tackled histories of sexuality, feminism, childhood and the Afro-Atlantic world. (A version of its “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” very different from the MASP original, has been traveling the United States.) The latest entry, Indigenous Histories,” will approach its theme through the eyes of Indigenous curators and artists from Oceania, South America, North America and Europe. The subject is vast and loose, the project politically tricky, but potentially fascinating.

A Long Arc: Photography and the American South Since 1845 is coming to the High Museum, Atlanta (Sept. 15-Jan. 14). As a Boston teenager in the 1960s, I took an impromptu Greyhound bus trip through the South, which permanently changed and shaped my view of America and its history. I have a sense that this exhibition of images dating from the Civil War to the civil rights era, to the present, will offer a similarly eye-widening journey through American time.

And one last revisionist entry, this one recently opened and long-running. We often look to New York City, and the presence of the Young Lords in its East Harlem barrio, as the main stage for Latino, and specifically Puerto Rican, activism during the civil rights years. But, in fact, the Young Lords, who modeled themselves on the Black Panthers, formed in 1968 in Chicago. Entre Horizontes: Art and Activism Between Chicago and Puerto Rico at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (through May 5, 2024) tells that origin story, introduces us to artists we should know, and draws a clear horizon line between Lake Michigan and the Caribbean.

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