New program first to interpret Museums' African art collection
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New program first to interpret Museums' African art collection
Seth Kane Kwei, Coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod, ca. 1970. Wood, paint, and cloth, 34 x 102 x 29 in. (86.4 x 259.1 x 73.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Vivian Burns, Inc. Courtesy of Kane Kwei carpentry workshop. Photograph © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, photograph by Randy Dodson.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Lhola Amira: Facing the Future launched the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s new African art program, foregrounding the permanent collection as a site of exploration for the evolving nature of African arts and their meanings today. Helmed by Natasha Becker, inaugural curator of African art, the program features contemporary artists whose work draws on and engages the artistic and cultural traditions of Africa. First to present, Lhola Amira (b. 1984, Gugulethu, South Africa) embodies South African Nguni spiritual practices in THEIR* life and work, emphasizing the power of remembering ancestors.

“Natasha Becker has designed a program that is timely and relevant in its approach, interpreting the Fine Arts Museums’ collection of African art as a body of aesthetic practices that are very much alive in the work of contemporary artists from the African continent and throughout the diaspora,” remarked Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “In Lhola Amira: Facing the Future, visitors will be able to trace the trajectory of ancestor veneration from the 19th- and 20th-century figures in our permanent collection galleries to the new artwork that Lhola Amira has created specifically for the space."

The artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States, Facing the Future brings together Amira’s new Philisa: Zinza Mphefumlo Wami—or portal for spiritual reflection and connection—and THEIR single-channel video projection exploring indigenous forms of healing within the African diaspora, IRMANDADE: The Shape of Water in Pindorama (2018–2020). Created in response to the permanent collection’s ancestor sculptures, Amira’s Philisa installation or “Constellation” Zinza Mphefumlo Wami invites viewers to “be at rest with spirit.” Designed to be accessible to all, this portal for remembrance and resurrection pairs beaded curtains with a ceremonial salt bowl for cleansing, golden pillars with candlelight and water pitchers for channeling, and song to help invoke ancestral energies. The many ways in which African artworks convey the sacredness of life is explored further in the permanent collection’s ancestor figures, objects for communication with the divine, and masquerades that animate and revere previous generations.

IRMANDADE follows Amira’s journey through Bahia, Brazil. A work of “Appearance” rather than “performance,” the film is the artist’s response to the woundedness of water, land, and generations of descendants of enslaved peoples throughout the diaspora. In THEIR “Appearances,” Amira engages with the site-specific geographic, political, and socioeconomic conditions of place. Their ceremonial foot washing of Afro-Brazilian women in IRMANDADE gestures toward healing through ancestral wisdom and is itself an act of profound recognition of diasporic connections. “To heal ourselves,” says the artist, “is to heal our ancestors, too.” Lhola Amira THEMSELF identifies as an ancestral presence co-existing in the body of curator Khanyisile Mbongwa.

“I invited Lhola Amira to be the first artist to participate in our contemporary African art program because of the urgency of THEIR call to reclaim indigenous wisdom and healing practices as a way to address the psychological, spiritual, and environmental wounds so prevalent in our world today,” notes Natasha Becker. “THEY are THEMSELF a plural being, an ancestral presence, and THEIR aesthetic intervention at the museum importantly acknowledges the wounding of Africans and Native Americans for the sake of greater love and compassion.”

The new African art program is the latest initiative by the Fine Arts Museums to present the work of living artists in dialogue with the permanent collections, as has been the practice of its Contemporary art program over the past 6 years. With a newly designed temporary exhibition gallery leading to the permanent collection, the African art program will continue to bring artists who are deeply engaged with African art, culture, and society to the Fine Arts Museums to amplify the vitality of the African art collection. Amira will make an “Appearance” to open Facing the Future and consecrate the exhibition as a sacred space.

Lhola Amira was born in 1984 in Gugulethu, South Africa, and currently lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. Amira’s practice includes “Appearance,” photography, video, and sculpture presented under the term “Constellation.” The artist Lhola Amira is an ancestral body co-existing in the body of curator and academic Khanyisile Mbongwa, therefore using the capitalized pronouns THEY/THEM/THEIR in THEIR work and in conversation about THEIR plural existence. Notably, Khanyisile Mbongwa was announced as the curator for the 2023 Liverpool Biennale. Amira has been awarded a number of residencies, namely the AiRS (Artist in Residence Skövde Art Museum) in Sweden in 2017; the Jiwar Creation and Society residency in Barcelona in 2015; and at Vasl Artists’ Collective in Islamabad, Pakistan in 2010. Amira’s works address the wounds left by colonization and create spaces for healing through connection to the earth, the ancestral, and the spiritual.

* Lhola Amira uses the capitalized pronouns THEY/THEM/THEIR

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