The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco opens its doors again this month for the first time since the pandemic with a suitably powerful double-header featuring the works of two ascendant African artists – the Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo and Malawi-born, Johannesburg-based artist Billie Zangewa. Both on view until early 2022, the duo of exhibitions mark the first solo museum shows of each artist, who are both widely considered amongst the most important African contemporary artists on the international stage.

Despite the simultaneous openings, each artist has been duly given their own spotlight. Boafo presents over 20 works that he created between 2018 and 2021. The exhibition, titled ‘Soul of Black Folks’ after the pioneering book of essays by sociologist and Pan Africanist WEB Du Bois, invites viewers to challenge their perceptions of the Black figure. This dialogue is intentionally amplified by the context of Du Bois’ historical writing, which contributed to the coining of the term ‘double consciousness’ to summarise the way Black people often had to view themselves through the eyes of others. Boafo’s deeply personal works, which represent sitters of all walks of African life, are steadfast celebrations of Blackness; each is an assertion of dignity and importance. 

 Amoako Boafo, Green-Clutch, 2021
Amoako Boafo Seye, 2019
Top: Amoako Boafo, Green-Clutch, 2021, Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim; Above: Seye, 2019, Courtesy of Hernandahan Family Collection, Jacinto J Hernandez and Chet CallahanCourtesy of Roberts Projects

‘Du Bois’ text serves as rich source material that provides a conceptual framework for the exhibition,’ writes curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, adding that Du Bois is actually buried in Osu, Ghana, Boafo’s hometown. ‘Viewers are asked to reflect on what it means for people from the African diaspora to take agency in cultivating one’s narrative, aesthetic, and cultural expression. How does this radical act become a catalyst for a heightened sense of Black consciousness and liberation that is antithetical to the Western canonical discourse?’

Boafo’s captivating point of view is complemented by the intricate collages of textile artist Billie Zanegawa, who is exhibiting works from the past 15 years as well as new pieces made specially for ‘Thread for a Web Begun’. Zangewa’s intricate creations are enhanced by her deep understanding of textiles. From early works that feature embroideries on pieces of found fabric to more recent works that have been composed using hand-stitched fragments of raw silk, Zangewa portrays a range of personal and universal experiences using domestic interiors, urban landscapes and portraiture to challenge historical stereotypes, objectification and exploitation of the Black female form.

 Eric Carmichael
Artist Billie Zangewa with her exhibition, ‘Thread for a Web Begun’ at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco. Photography: Eric Carmichael

Zangewa’s depictions of the female experience are based on her own navigations of life in Johannesburg. Her representations of domestic scenes are inspired by the ‘daily feminism’ as she calls it, of the oft-overlooked, yet valuable work that women do daily to keep society running smoothly. 

‘Through the method of their making and their narrative content, Zangewa’s silk paintings illustrate gendered labour in a socio-political context, where the domestic sphere becomes a pretext for a deeper understanding of the construction of identity, questions around gender stereotypes, and racial prejudice,’ states curator Dexter Wimberly of Zangewa’s labour-intensive process. ‘She explores the different roles that women play in society, including motherhood and the impact that it has individually and collectively. The images in her work are deliberately decontextualised. However, when shown in a group, their fragmentary nature is further emphasised, suggesting they are excerpted from a larger narrative.’

Zangewa’s deep exploration of individual and collective identity, and of modern Black femininity will soon gain traction around the world, with solo shows upcoming at Lehmann Maupin gallery in its Seoul and London locations in November 2021. §

 Billie Zangewa, On the corner
 Afternoon Delight II, 2018 Billie Zangewa
Top: Billie Zangewa, On the corner, Courtesy JP Morgan Chase Art Collection. Above: Afternoon Delight II, 2018. Courtesy of Harry G. David Collection and Lehmann Maupin