If you’ve happened upon the National Museum of African Art (part of the Smithsonian Institution) at any point since April, you’re one of the lucky ones to have experienced an artistic wonderland of works inspired by Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, “The Divine Comedy.”
With new commissions and cutting-edge artwork by more than 40 artists from 18 African countries as well as the African Diaspora, “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” (africa.si.edu) encompasses the entire museum, the first exhibit ever to make use of all four levels and nearly 22,000 square feet at 950 Independence Ave., S.W.
The exhibit, which will run through Nov. 1, was guest curated by internationally acclaimed critic and scholar Simon Njami with help from the National Museum of African Art’s curator Karen Milbourne.
“We’ve been working with Simon Njami for a while and the idea came from him. He’s of Cameroonian descent, is based in Paris, and was a passionate reader of ‘The Divine Comedy,’” Milbourne says. “For Simon, what was the most telling was its position as a universal text. Many of us around the world have read translations of at least ‘Inferno’ if not all three books, and yet he didn’t see himself in it.”
The exhibition therefore, was a chance for Njami to allow Africa, as well as Asia and others from around the world, to become part of the story.
“Beyond that, for the museum, this is an exhibition that looks at how something we consider to be timeless, like a text, is also timely,” she says. “The idea of what is good and what is bad and what is in between is certainly timely for today. The opportunity to look at these issues through the lens of emerging and established artists is a great one.”
Regardless of what type of art you enjoy, there’s something for everyone in this exhibit as it showcases inspirational painting, video projection, installation, sculpture, textiles, printmaking, film, photography and even a collage by African artists.
“About 80 percent of the artworks are commissioned and the rest were works selected to be included. All were created within the last 10 years,” Milbourne says. “Pretty much anything you can think of to make art out of is in this exhibition.”
Among the highlights are a 42-foot canvas by Pélagie Gbaguidi and a dual-channel video installation by Berry Bickle, both appearing for the first time ever in a North America showing.
Also of note are life-size embossed engravings by Christine Dixie from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, and a mixed-media collage by Wangechi Mutu and photographic series by Youssef Nabil.
“I do love all the art in different ways,” Milbourne says. “A highlight for me has been the photography of Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny in ‘Heaven,’ and that’s in part because he is very much on the emerging side of the spectrum and I think he’s put together an exquisite suite of photographs that provides for the physical experience of loss and separation and yet are these poetic black-and-white photographs.”
Milbourne says she loves the idea of seeing different visions of paradise, purgatory and hell.
“I think the show asks each of us, what each of these concepts means to us, and seeing how very different it is from person to person,” she says. “It’s an extraordinary exhibition in its ability to show the individual’s perspective.”