"Heroes": Principles of African Greatness Part 1—That Liberty & Equality Might Reign

Join us for the first of 7 dispatches from "Heroes," exploring artworks from the National Museum of African Art’s permanent collection that tell the story of key heroic principles and personages in Africa’s arts and history, through art, biography, quotes, interviews, and music.

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness Exhibit Entryway (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A long-term permanent collection installation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art.  


Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness - Full Tour (2021-01-07) by Kevin DumouchelleSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Welcome to Heroes (1:55)

Heroes Exhibit Banner (2019) by Sakinya Washington and Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Be your best. This is the quest that the greatest of heroes model for us. Through their journeys, struggles, and triumphs, exceptional individuals exemplify values that we celebrate in tales of heroic accomplishment—epics that outlast heroes themselves. Africa’s history abounds with such tales.

Exhibition photo of Toussaint Louverture et la vielle esclave (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Part 1: The Liberty and Equality Might Reign

Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St. Dominigue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.
—Toussaint Louverture, at Camp Turel, Aug. 29, 1793

Heroes Series 1 (2021-12-07) by Kevin DumouchelleSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Heroes and Artists (3:22)

Exhibition photo of Toussaint Louverture et la vielle esclave (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The universal struggle for Liberty and Equality animates the opening series of works in Heroes. For all of the remote and abstract ways in which ideas of liberty and equality are all-too-often casually invoked, particularly in the contemporary Western world...

...they have deeply personal consequences for those denied the luxury of enjoying them on an everyday basis. The artists and heroes in history depicted in this foundational section all share a clear and defiant understanding of their fundamental rights to the realization of these principles.

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness - Dispatch 1 Themes (2021) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Each principal in Heroes is represented by an artwork and a specific historic African person who embodies the value expressed in the selected work. In this first dispatch we explore art and heroes who bear Witness, embrace Liberty, are Righteous, Resistant, and Empowered.

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Fort William-Anomabu (2004/2005) by Paa JoeSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Witness


Paa Joe documents a building that beheld a depraved and dreadful history.

Fort William-Anomabu

Paa Joe 
b. 1947, Akwapim, Eastern Region, Ghana
Works in Pobiman, Greater Accra Region, Ghana
2004–5; made in Nungua, Ghana
Wood, enamel paint
Gift of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, 
in memory of Claude Simard, 2014-14-1

Paa Joe is one of the best-known innovators of an art form that has developed outside Accra—"fantasy coffins” (abebu adekai) sculpted in forms that memorialize their future residents’ key accomplishments in life. 

Abebu adekai not only carry their occupants into the next life in style, but leave a searing, visual memory of an image to embody the deceased’s memory long after their physical bodies have been returned to the earth. 


In this style, Paa Joe created a series of architectural models of Ghana’s coastal forts—global sites of memory, conscience, and loss. 

 In the 17th and 18th centuries these buildings became repositories for bodies themselves—the bodies of African men, women, and children who were captured and converted into commodities in the dehumanizing international trade in enslaved labor.

Ignatius Sancho - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Ignatius Sancho

Writer. Actor. Composer. Businessman. Abolitionist. 
He was 18th-century Britain’s symbol of black possibility.

c. 1729–1780, b. on a slave ship en route from West Africa to South America. Worked in London.

Ignatius Sancho (1768) by Thomas GainsboroughOriginal Source: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


Thomas Gainsborough
Ignatius Sancho
1768
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love) . . . has been uniformly wicked in the East and West-Indies—and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators—indeed of all Christian navigators—is money—money—money . . . 

. . . In Africa . . . the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings [are] encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness—and powder—and bad fire-arms—to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.
—Ignatius Sancho, letter to Mr. Jack Wingrave, 1778

I am Sir an Affrican—with two ffs—if you please—& proud am I to be of a country that knows no politicians—nor lawyers—no—nor Thieves.—Ignatius Sancho, letter, c. 1776–80

·  Brought to England in childhood, Sancho learned to read; he devoured books.

·  Sancho and his wife set up a shop in Westminster, giving him the right to vote in parliamentary elections. He was the first Black man to vote in Britain.

·  His letters, published posthumously, were one of the earliest accounts of slavery in English. They became a rallying point in the growing abolitionist movement.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist



Bob Marley and the Wailers – “Redemption Song”
Lyrics by Bob Marley
Uprising. Island Records, 1979
Reggae

Toussaint Louverture et la vieille esclave (1989) by Ousmane SowSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Liberty

This work rises in the center of Heroes as the museum’s own Statue of Liberty.

Toussaint Louverture et la vieille esclave

Ousmane Sow 
1935–2016, b. Dakar, Senegal
Worked in Dakar, Senegal
1989
Mixed media (iron, earth, jute, straw, other organic materials)
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution; museum purchase, through exchange from Emil Eisen

A Black liberation leader stands holding out his hand, staring into an as-yet-unrealized future...

...as a formerly enslaved woman rises.

The Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow created this work as part of a series of sculptures commemorating the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

Unlike those sculptures, however, Sow’s Toussaint Louverture depicts a figure who actually struggled directly against the French state, taking on the mantle of the original revolutionary principles (egalité, fraternité, and, above all, liberté) surrendered at the dawn of the 19th century in Paris to the authoritarian rule of Napoleon.

Toussaint Louverture - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Toussaint Louverture

He was the original Black liberation leader.

1743–1803, b. Cap-Haïtien, Haiti
Worked in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Toussaint Louverture Chef des Noirs Insurgés de Saint Domingue (c. 1800) by UnknownSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Unidentified artist
Toussaint Louverture Chef des Noirs Insurgés de Saint Domingue
c. 1800
Engraving
John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St. Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.
—Toussaint Louverture, at Camp Turel, Aug. 29, 1793

·  From a plantation birth to an early life as a wealthy free man, he was well educated. He took the surname Louverture, from the French term for “opening.”

·  Louverture led a slave rebellion, beginning in 1791, in a series of campaigns that ultimately defeated the armies of three world powers: Spain, the United Kingdom, and France.

·  Ruling a St. Dominigue freed from French rule, Louverture codified the abolition of slavery in the new nation, soon to be renamed Haiti.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist



Boukman Eksperyans – “Nanm Nan Boutèy”
Lyrics by T. Beaubrun Jr. and Mimerose Beaubrun
Kalfou Danjere. Balenjo Music/Songs of Polygram International, 1992
Rasin

Two Hemba Sculptures (Late 19th or early 20th century) by Hemba artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Righteous

They are made to be looked up to.

Hemba artist
Mbubula, Tanganyika Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Singiti (ancestral figure of a man)
Late 19th or early 20th century
Wood
Museum purchase, 85-1-13

Hemba artist
Maniema or Tanganyika Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Singiti (ancestral figure of a man)
Late 19th or early 20th century
Wood, plant fiber, glass beads
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-181

These sentries stand as virtuous, upright, and beautiful representations of key Hemba leaders, since passed. Each figure was commissioned by a Hemba community as a portrait of a remembered and venerated male predecessor. 

Instead of portraying these men directly, however, these sculptures may instead be considered “moral portraits”—dignified, serene, strong, and contained. 

They embody the physical and ethical ideals of leadership for a typical late 19th-century Hemba community. 

Patrice Lamumba - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Patrice Lumumba

In life, he was a symbol of Congo’s new future; in death, he was a symbol of dreams dashed.

1925–1961, b. Katakokombe, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Worked in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Patrice Lumumba (1960-01) by Harry PotOriginal Source: Wikimedia

·  Lumumba formed the Mouvement National Congolais, advocating for independence from Belgium.

·  He was the first prime minister of independent Congo. Lumumba was seen as a pan-African symbol of African rectitude and resistance to colonialism.

·  Overthrown within his first year in office, Lumumba was then murdered—with covert assistance from the West, including the Belgian and American governments.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist



Joseph Kabasele Tshamala (Le Grand Callé) – “Indépendance Cha Cha”
Lyrics by Joseph Kabasele Tshamala (Grand Callé)
Succès des années 50/60, Vol. I. Fonior, 1960.
Congolese rumba

Miriam Makeba – “Patrice Lumumba”
Lyrics by Bongi Makeba
Keep Me in Mind. Reprise, 1974.
Jazz

Untitled (Late 20th century) by Gora MbengueSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Resistant

Images like this once inspired defiance to French rule in Senegal.

Untitled (Sheikh Amadou Bamba)

Gora Mbengue
1931–1988, b. Thiadiaye, Thiès Region, Senegal
Worked in Gorée, Dakar Region, Senegal
Late 20th century
Paint on glass
Bequest of Charlton E. Williams, 2002-14-19

Sheikh Amadou Bamba stands in the center, in a white robe and turban. A Sufi saint, poet, and teacher, he led a pacifist resistance against the French colonial administration. 

As a founder of the influential Mouride movement, one of four mystical Sufi groups within Islam, Bamba’s image was considered so potent...

...by both his followers, who believe it conveys blessings, and by the French, who feared it as a rallying point of resistance...

...that it was once banned in the colony.

Amadou Bamba - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Sheikh Amadou Bamba

This Sufi saint  promoted a message of nonviolent resistance to colonialism.

c. 1850–1927, b. Mbacké, Senegal
Worked in Touba, Senegal

Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1913) by UnidentifiedSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

O you the Just, the Good by excellence, the Preserver! O You who heal and who hold man’s destiny in Your hands! Let Your blessings descend where harm exists And let there be good where evil prevails. And let there be generosity where avarice prevails. Let wealth be showered in poor places and let there be gratitude where ingratitude prevails . . .
—Sheikh Amadou Bamba, “The Quest for Healing”

·  Sheikh Bamba founded the Mouride brotherhood in Touba, Senegal, in 1883. He emphasized pacifism, hard work, and self-improvement.

·  When French colonial leaders were promoting Christianization and assimilation, Sheikh Bamba asserted his submission to God alone. Fearing his example, the French authorities exiled him for 12 years.

·  Today, the Mouride order consists of at least five million members globally.

Selections form the Heroes Playlist


Youssou N’Dour – “Bamba”
Lyrics by Mamadou Mbaye, Thomas Rome, Youssou N’Dour
Youssou N’Dour—Dakar/Kingston. Universal Music France, 2010.
Mbalax

The Blue Bra Girls (2012) by Ghada AmerSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Empowered

A monument to women who dared to claim their own power.

The Blue Bra Girls

Ghada Amer
b. 1963, Cairo, Egypt
Works in New York, N.Y.
2012
Cast and polished stainless steel
Museum purchase, Women’s Initiative Fund, 2018-2-1

The Blue Bra Girls commemorates women who gathered in Tahrir Square, in central Cairo, in December 2011 to demonstrate for political openness and to protest the military administration that replaced president Hosni Mubarak, overthrown that February after 30 years in power.  It recalls a moment of tremendous possibility in Egypt—and of hopes soon thwarted by misogyny, violence, and repression.

The Blue Bra Girls references a widely circulated photograph from that late 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square—of an anonymous woman so violently beaten and dragged by the police that her black abaya was lifted, leaving her torso bare, except for her blue bra.

As the image circulated globally that December, Cairo witnessed the largest political gathering of women in the country—the largest, that is, since the anticolonial demonstrations organized by feminist leader Huda Sha’arawi in 1919.

Tahrir Square Protests (2011-02-08) by MonaOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tahrir Square Protests

Tahrir Square during 8 February 2011 
Mona Sosh

Huda Sha'awari - Hero in History Medallion (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Huda Sha’arawi

She unveiled the power of Egyptian women.

1879–1947, b. Minya, Egypt
Worked in Cairo, Egypt

Huda Sha'arawi (Early 20th century) by UnknownSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Huda Sha’arawi


Men have singled out women of outstanding merit and put them on a pedestal to avoid recognizing the capabilities of all women.—Huda Sha’arawi, The Harem Years: Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1897–1924)


·  Sha’arawi was an Egyptian feminist who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (1923).

·  An anticolonial activist, Sha’arawi organized Egypt’s largest women-led, anti-British demonstration (1919), a milestone in the events leading to Egypt’s independence in 1922.

·  Sha’arawi refused to wear the hijab in public after 1922.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist



Samar El Husseiny – “اهو ده اللى صار / This Is What Happened”
Lyrics by Sayed Darwish
.اهو ده اللى صار Moseeqa TV, 2019 [originally 1919].
Arabic folk

Mohamed Mounir – “إزاي؟ / How Come?”
Lyrics by Mohamed Mounir
 إزاي؟ Mohamed Mounir, 2011 [single released 2019]. Arabic pop

Dina El Wedidi – “تدوّر وترجع / Turning Back”
Lyrics by Mido Zohair
Turning Back. Valley Entertainment, 2015.
Arabic folk

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness - Full Tour (2021-01-07) by Kevin DumouchelleSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Welcome to Heroes: Principles of African Greatness (1:55)

Credits: Story

Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Story Design by Marc Bretzfelder
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution

Photos of Fort William - Anomabu and The Blue Bra Girls by Brad Simpson, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution


Photos of Toussaint Louverture et la vielle esclave, Hemba Sculptures and Untilted (Gora Mbengue) by Franko L. Khoury, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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