AnOther Magazine: Inside This Breathtaking Exhibition

Sagal Mohammed, AnOther Magazine, October 21, 2020

What is it? Inspired by 13th, Ava DuVernay’s award-winning Netflix documentary dissecting the 13th amendment and the US justice system, Say My Name is an exhibition dedicated to connecting African diaspora in Europe and America with the histories of the continent, while honouring the Black experience in the Western world.

Curated by London-based Signature African Art’s gallery director Khalil Akar and presented by DuVernay herself, the exhibition will take place in both London and Los Angeles. Each show features 13 African artists who have used their talents to create portrait paintings and sculptures to articulate the many layers of Black history and racial struggles on a global scale, while paying tribute to prominent figures both past and present, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose brutal killings by police sparked the rise of this year’s Black Lives Matter movement worldwide.

“We’ve picked 13 artists, seven female and six male, all of which are based in Africa. We wanted to be the bridge that connects artists from the continent and issues that are taking place in the continent with what’s happening in Europe and the US. As far as I know, it has never really been done before,” explains Akar. “I worked with Ava DuVernay on this as the entire exhibition was inspired by her documentary, 13th. We came up with all the topics for the exhibition together and then I showed her the artists that I had in mind for each one and she gave the OK, so she was involved in the whole process, from the concept to the staging of the show.”

The show is made special by the artists, who carefully considered their given topics, using intricate details to portray the subject of their art. In his tribute to George Floyd, Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi has created a series of nine paintings, each symbolising the approximate nine minutes Floyd’s neck was pressed upon by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, as well as featuring the last nine sentences he uttered before his death, including the haunting words, “I can’t breathe”. Similarly, Benin-based Moufouli Bello, whose work focuses on identity and ideology, presents a stunning portrait of Breonna Taylor. Meanwhile artist Dennis Osakue honours iconic American activist Angela Davis with a portrait that is so carefully detailed that it bears photographic quality, and contemporary artist Taiye Erewele beautifully depicts Kenyan activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, Wangari Maathai.

“The artists we picked needed to have a very deep range because of the issues we’re covering,” says Akar. “We needed people that could really pull it off artistically. So, we needed to consider their individual art forms and whether they could be adapted to the strong subject of the exhibition. I had an idea in mind for pretty much each artist and the topics I’d like them to cover within the subject but then when I spoke to them, we started bouncing ideas off each other to come up with the best concepts.”

Why do I want to see it? In a time where educating ourselves about Black history is more crucial than ever, the exhibition acts as the perfect teacher. Not only does it showcase the talents of Black artists but it highlights crucial moments in Black history, from the transatlantic slave trade and heroes of the Civil Rights Movement in America, to the treatment of the Windrush generation in Britain and lesser-known issues like gender-based violence in South Africa.

“There are so many crazy facts that you learn along the way when researching something like this. For example, one of my artists is from South Africa and his piece is all about gender-based violence in the country, it’s a huge thing over there and he has linked that to police brutality in America,” says Akar. “There are a lot of issues in the Western world that also take place in Africa. I grew up in Nigeria myself, I lived there for 20 years. In regards to history, I was in French school, but we had a few years of studying African history and obviously you then learn new things about African-American history. Everybody wants to wrap Black history into the same cloth, but you can’t, it’s not the same. As well as US history and African history, you’ve got Black-British history with topics like the Windrush generation which itself is one thing, it takes time to learn about that. It’s so different when you hear about things and then actually learn the facts and figures behind it.”

In an effort to support the Black community, Signature African Art will donate 40 per cent of the proceeds from Say My Name to DuVernay’s Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP), a fund focused on empowering activists to tell stories of police abuse and violence through various narrative art forms. The gallery has also committed to donating its share of proceeds from the sales of the portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to their respective families.

Where can I see it? The Say My Name exhibition will be showcased at Signature African Art’s gallery in Mayfair, London from October 27 to November 28, in honour of Black History Month in the UK. It will then open in Los Angeles in February 2021 with further details of the participating artists and works to be announced later this year, as they will differ slightly. Both shows will be presented by DuVernay.

“We have a piece that’s dedicated to the history of the Windrush generation in the UK but there’s also works on African history and African-American history. Similarly, the exhibition in America will feature pieces inspired by history from all three continents because we want to link the three together. The whole idea is to raise awareness for it all. People in America may not be as familiar with Black-British history or African history, while people in Britain might not be familiar with African history or some aspects of African-American history.”