Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club Features:
Jacob Lawrence’s Entire Nigeria Series on View for the First Time in More Than Five Decades
Works by Nigerian and International Artists Who Shaped Postcolonial Modernism
New Orleans (December 12, 2022)—In February, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) will present Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club, an exhibition exploring the creative exchange between artist Jacob Lawrence and the members of the Mbari Artists & Writers Club, a Nigerian arts collective founded in 1961. The Mbari Club was an art salon, theater, and studio where artists of all backgrounds gathered to converse and experiment, and the club produced a cultural magazine, Black Orpheus (1957–67), that spread this work around the globe.
The exhibition marks the first time in more than five decades that Lawrence’s little known Nigeria series will be exhibited in its entirety, shining new light on 20th-century modernism by presenting a period in Lawrence’s practice and spotlighting the work of modern artists in Nigeria, across Africa, and throughout the African Diaspora, many of whom still remain under recognized in the United States. The exhibition will be on view at NOMA from February 10 to May 7, 2023.
Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club presents more than 125 works including paintings, sculpture, textiles, photographs, videos, original letters, and rare publications revealing a global exchange of ideas at a time when people and countries around the world were fighting for independence from colonialism, and when the civil rights movement was achieving success in the United States.
“Co-organizing and presenting Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club reflects the New Orleans Museum of Art’s commitment to expanding and diversifying public appreciation of African and African American art,” said Susan Taylor, Montine McDaniel Freeman Director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. “The exhibition particularly resonates in conversation with NOMA’s exceptional African art collection and the museum’s recently acquired works by modern and contemporary African artists, adding multiple layers to the dialogue within the Black Orpheus exhibition itself. I want to thank curators Ndubuisi Ezeluomba and Kimberli Gant for opening this new window on the history of modern art, giving us unexpected insights on Lawrence’s practice, and heightening awareness of a group of dynamic and accomplished artists that deserve to be much better known.”
“There is a lack of scholarship surrounding art of the African postcolonial period and the impact of this work on generations of artists in Africa and internationally—a gap we want to address with this exhibition,” added Ndubuisi Ezeluomba, exhibition co-curator and the New Orleans Museum of Art’s former Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art and now Curator of African Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Nigerian artistic modernism drew from both traditional continental practices and Western European practices, creating a new type of expression centered on spiritual renewal and political restoration. The interactions between Lawrence and the artists active in the Mbari Club had a deep impact on the trajectory of his and these artists’ practices and their expression of self representation, freedom, and independence.”
“Traveling to Africa twice in the early 1960s, Jacob Lawrence connected to a vibrant crosscurrent of political and social ideas circulating there, as richly illustrated by the writing and art featured in Black Orpheus,” said Kimberli Gant, exhibition co-curator and the Chrysler Museum of Art’s former McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, now Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum. “Those artists, in turn, were adapting and integrating modernist theories of art with their local styles, customs, and life experiences. The results can be seen in Lawrence’s lesser known Nigeria series—and in the remarkable array of works in this show that represent West Africa during a period of transition.”
Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club is organized in five sections:
- Lawrence and Nigeria features the artist’s Nigeria series and examples of his War and Harlem works—many of which were exhibited in Lawrence’s solo exhibition in Lagos in 1962. The section also includes archival images of Lawrence and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight, during their travels and original correspondence from Lawrence about his experiences.
- Artists of Òṣogbo presents the works of Nigerian artists who are less familiar to American audiences, including Twins Seven-Seven, Muraina Oyelami, Asiru Olatunde, Jacob Afolabi, and Adebisi Akanji, all of whom were featured in Mbari Club galleries and in Black Orpheus. These artists—who inspired younger generations of artists—learned a range of artistic traditions from older generations of artists in Africa and elsewhere.
- Zaria Art Society focuses on a group of Nigerian artists including Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, and Bruce Onobrakpeya who developed a philosophy called “natural synthesis,” combining local aesthetics and cultural traditions with Western art techniques to create a new modern art form.
- Artists Across the African Continent features original art published in Black Orpheus, including works by the Kenyan artist Hezbon Owiti, Mozambican artist and poet Valente (Malangatana) Ngwenya, Ghanaian artist Vincent Kofi, and Ethiopian artist Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian, as well as Ibrahim El-Salahi and Ahmed Mohammed Shibrain, two members of the Sudanese Khartoum School. These artists—often trained in European styles—featured iconography and stories from their own cultures as new modes of artistic expression.
- Beyond the African Continent includes artists whose creations were the result of similar forms of artistic—and political—discovery as their counterparts in Africa. Among the artists featured in this section of the exhibition are Avandrish Chandra from India, Genaro Antonio Dantak de Carvalho and Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos from Brazil, and William H. Johnson from the United States.
During the run of Black Orpheus, NOMA will also present a special exhibition of recently gifted works from the collection of Diane and Charles Frankel, featuring pieces by modern and contemporary artists from the later generations that advanced the path-breaking innovations of the Mbari Club members. Included in Field and Figure: Recent Gifts from Charles and Diane Frankel are important works by Ablade Glover, Owusu-Ankomah, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Pieter Hugo, and Mikhael Subotzky. Framing the entryway to Black Orpheus—and providing additional context through NOMA’s permanent collection, is a site-specific mural by the Philadelphia-based, Nigerian-born artist Odili Donald Odita, whose father was a member of the Mbari Club.
Exhibition Organizers and Schedule
Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club is co-organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Chrysler Museum of Art.
Chrysler Museum of Art: October 7, 2022–January 8, 2023
New Orleans Museum of Art: February 10–May 7, 2023
Toledo Museum of Art: June 3–September 3, 2023
This exhibition was made possible in part by major funding from National Endowment for the Humanities, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Getty Foundation Paper Project, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the IFPDA Foundation. The Wyeth Foundation for American Art provided support for the exhibition catalogue.
A full-color catalogue published by Yale University Press accompanies the exhibition and includes essays by the exhibition’s curators and other scholars, including Katharina Greven, Lena Naumann, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, Leslie King-Hammond, Juliana Ribeiro da Silva Bevilacqua, Suheyla Takesh, Peter Probst, Obi Nwakanma, and Frank Ugiomoh.
About NOMA and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden
The New Orleans Museum of Art, founded in 1910 by Isaac Delgado, houses more than 40,000 works of art encompassing 5,000 years of history. The adjoining Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden features more than 90 sculptures, including works by 20th and 21st-century masters.
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