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PHOTOS: Check Out These Affecting Images of African Heroes

"Heroes: Principles of African Greatness" opens November 16 at the National Museum of African Art

Photograph courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

The National Museum of African Art’s new exhibit celebrates history’s heroes, from the legendary to the relatively unsung. “Heroes: Principles of African Greatness,” which opens on November 16, includes around 50 works from more than 40 artists that showcase the qualities that make great leaders, like justice, integrity, and empathy.

The exhibit features pieces from the Smithsonian institution’s permanent collection, along with several new additions. The works, which range from watercolor paintings to steel and wood sculptures by both classical and contemporary artists, are paired with figures who embody the qualities depicted in the works.

“The exhibition comes at a crucial time in the public understanding of Africa and its arts and history,” Gus Casely-Hayford, the museum’s director, said in a press release. The show coincides with the anniversaries of first enslaved African worker’s arrival in North America in 1619 and the first democratic elections in South Africa 25 years ago.

Before it opens to the public next weekend, check out some highlights below.

Photographs courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

This painting by Johannesburg-based artist Kay Hassan depicts voters coming together to decide the country’s future for the first time in 1994. Hassan, who uses everyday materials in his portraits, worked with paper, glue, and staples. The piece is paired with a photo of the real-life voters by Raymond Preston.

Cairo-born artist Ghada Amer’s stainless steel egg, titled The Blue Bra Girls, is a tribute to the women who were beaten by police at protests during the Arab Spring. It will be shown alongside a photo of the pioneering women’s rights activist Huda Sha’arawi, who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923.

One of the museum’s recent acquistions, this watercolor was painted by former South African president Nelson Mandela. The piece depicts the Robben Island prison where he was held in exile for much of his 27-year sentence, and will be displayed with a picture of the artist and political revolutionary from 2000.

Cold Turkey: Stories of Truth and Reconciliation (“Poison Victim”), a collage by Cape Town-based artist Sue Williamson, examines the atrocities highlighted as part of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A photo of theologian and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu by Benny Gool accompanies the work.

A statue of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution, stands in the center of the exhibit. Made from iron, jute, and other materials by the Senegalese sculptor, Ousmane Snow, the piece is presented with a lithograph of the hero from 1800.

El Anatsui, a Ghanaian artist based in Nigeria, uses woods in different colors to represent unity, as Nigerian spiritual leaders and ancestors gather to discuss the country’s troubles. With it, the Big Six, Ghana’s founding fathers, on a 10 cedi note.

“Heroes: Principles of African Greatness” opens at the National Museum of African Art on November 16.

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Nathan Diller
Editorial Fellow

Nathan is an editorial fellow at Washingtonian. Originally from Nashville, he graduated from Columbia Journalism School with a master’s degree in 2019. His work has also appeared in SPIN, NYLON, and Nashville Lifestyles.