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‘Touching roots’ and connecting cultural histories at the MFA

The exhibition ‘Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas’ helps reveal a parallel history of both 20th-century American art and of the museum itself

John Wilson's "Maquette for Eternal Presence" sits at the opening of “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas,” part of the new installation "Stories Artists Tell" in the Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries/© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There’s no getting around John Wilson’s “Maquette for Eternal Presence,” a stoic bronze bust smack dab in the middle of the first gallery on the third floor of the Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.

This is very much the point. The museum opened its reinstalled 20th-century American art collections in late May, and everything revolves around it, a lodestar for renewed vows of breadth and inclusion. Uncannily, decades on, the piece was more or less made for this moment: “It was my answer to all the omissions, the things I did not see at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,” Wilson said in a 1995 interview. “I wanted to make a Black image you could not ignore.”

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Wilson, born in Roxbury and anchored in Boston most of his life, died in 2015 at 92, and would never see the bronze enter the collection, which it did only this year. (Its much larger progeny, the 7-foot final version, has adorned the lawn at the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury since 1987; it was installed to mark 350 years of Black presence in Boston.) And not only is the piece here, it’s far from alone.

To its left and right is “Stories Artists Tell,” a reconfigured collection that explores long-neglected tangents across time, space, and discipline, straying far from the arrow-straight narrative that’s dominated American art history for decades. Slip in behind it, and you’ll find “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas,” a focused pocket exhibition tucked between the main channels of the installation.

The show picks up notes from “Stories Artists Tell”; it is formally agnostic, more interested in narrative connection than media or technique. But with its devotion both to Blackness and to Boston, it’s the kind of show Wilson, in his day, might only have dreamt of. “Touching Roots” helps reveal a parallel history of both 20th-century American art and of the museum itself. It knits together an aesthetic across oceans and eras, connecting the Black diaspora to its African roots and acknowledging its struggle to make itself whole.

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From left: Loïs Mailou Jones, “Ubi Girl from Tai Region,” 1974, and "Jeanne, Martinique," 1938; Ifé Franklin, "Ancient Voice, Honoring Spirits, Touching Roots" (top) and "Ifé Awakening, Warrior Spirit," both 1997; Willie Cole, "Silex Male, Ritual," 2004, in “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas,” in the Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries/© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There’s important precedent here. “Touching Roots” is a distant echo of “Afro-American Artists: Boston and New York,” the grudgingly staged, mostly forgotten, and irrefutably groundbreaking exhibition of Black contemporary art hosted by the MFA in 1970. Driven forward by the artist and activist Dana Chandler and curated by Edmund Barry Gaither, the director of the then brand-new NCAAA, the show was the banner event of a burgeoning Black art movement that blossomed alongside the Black Power movement of its day.

“Touching Roots” transcends that time with works as recent as 2018. But it shares a unifying principle in its belief in the power of continuity and shared cultural history (the exhibition notes include a tribute to Gaither, who was a consultant for the museum until 2020). With just 35 works, it’s a short lesson in formative elements of Black American art in the 20th century and its yearnings — for heritage, for connection, and simply to be seen at all.

Several pieces fit the ethos of the Harlem Renaissance, the post-World War I blossoming of Black American culture that gave us artists and poets like Romare Bearden and Langston Hughes. As the movement evolved, a yearning for roots took hold. “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” the essay by Alain LeRoy Locke, urged Black artists to build a Black American culture on the foundation of their African heritage. Its ideas underpin “Touching Roots,” one generation to the next.

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For me, an untitled watercolor by Aaron Douglas, from 1930, sets the tone. With its monochromatic palette of icy blue-gray, Douglas works in silhouette to set a scene of struggle and triumph. Pyramids in the background connect to Black ancestral origins along the Nile; a figure rises to the light above workers in chains. A church steeple evokes divine providence — freedom as God’s will.

An untitled work by Aaron Douglas, 1930.The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, © Aaron Douglas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Loïs Mailou Jones, a Bostonian, counts four pieces here, spanning nearly 40 years of her career that help chart the course Locke favored: The earliest, “Jeanne, Martinique,” 1938, is a portrait of an African woman who hosted literary salons in Paris, where Jones was then living, that helped connect a cohort of Black Americans to those cultural roots; the latest, “Ubi Girl from Tai Region,” 1973, seems to realize those early teachings with its tableaux of West African motifs. Its title figure, a woman with a white-painted face, makes a crucial point about a culture very much alive, thriving, and struggling for autonomy; in the 1960s and ′70s, Black activists in the US saw African countries fighting for independence from their colonizers as analogous to the civil rights movement here.

The show combs the MFA archives for synergies, both material and cultural. Strip-weaving, a West African tradition, infiltrated Black American textile practice most famously in Gee’s Bend, Ala., where artists such as Annie Mae Young made patchwork quilts, like the one here, that are loose, vibrant, and distinctly American. Bearden’s stirring “Family,” 1967-68, is a collage piece that adapts a strip-weaving from the African Sahel region in an homage to matriarchal culture. Allan Rohan Crite, another Bostonian, transposes African matriarchal tradition to his home here in Boston with “Ancestor Figure, Bambara, Mali, Wood,” 1974, a drawing of a Malian carved figure of a mother and child paired with a Black woman and her baby against the distinctive backdrop of Boston row houses.

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There are other highlights over which to linger, but for me, the key to “Touching Roots” is how rooted it is, right here in Boston. The museum has let slip that moment in 1970 when, against its will, the MFA was, however briefly, the center of Black American art. It’s much too late to seize that moment, with generations of Black artists since then now stratospheric superstars, far out of reach.

But can the museum be a rallying point for Black artists here in Boston? Stephen Hamilton, a young textile artist with a heroic impulse, gives me hope. His work here, from his “Founders Project,” is called “Dashawn Borden as Sundiata Keita,” from 2018, a regal portrait of a Black man, swathed in finery, on hand-woven cloth. The project is gracefully ennobling: Hamilton takes Boston high school students and recasts them as the mythic founders of African ethnic groups from which the diaspora flowed. The project embodies the best hope of “Touching Roots,” with a chapter yet unwritten: It imbues young people with deep roots, and fills them with pride and possibility from which to grow.

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TOUCHING ROOTS: BLACK ANCESTRAL LEGACIES IN THE AMERICAS

Through May 2023. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 425 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.