Georges Adéagbo's "Create to Free Yourselves" opens at National Museum of African Art

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Georges Adéagbo's "Create to Free Yourselves" opens at National Museum of African Art
The installation is the artist’s vision of the past and the future of the museum.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Georges Adéagbo’s mixed-media installation “Create to Free Yourselves—Abraham Lincoln and the History of Freeing Slaves in America” opened Nov. 18 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and continues through Spring 2024. The culmination of a decades-long interest in America’s 16th president, the installation fills a gallery with paintings, sculptures, found objects and hand-written personal reflections that together express the artist’s exploration of one transformative human being—President Abraham Lincoln—and the late president’s navigation of the tensions between life and purpose.

Long fascinated with Lincoln and his role in emancipating America’s enslaved citizens, Adéagbo (Ah-day-augh-bo) created his first installation focused on Lincoln, “Abraham—L’ami de Dieu,” in 2000 at PS1 MoMA in New York City. Twenty-one years later, the artist became a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow to work with the Lincoln collection at the National Museum of American History, which includes castings of the deceased president’s hands and face, his pocket watch and archival materials.

In Cotonou, Benin, the artist commissioned Beninois painter Benoît Adanhoumè to reproduce some of these, along with sculptures from carver Hugues Hountondji. These he combined with books, albums, personal reflections and other found objects to create the first iteration of “Create to Free Yourselves” at President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C. The exhibition was the result of a collaboration between the Cottage and the National Museum of African Art. It went on to travel to Chesterwood, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which is the former home and studio of Daniel Chester French, the acclaimed 19th-century artist who created the sculpture of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. It will now come to the National Museum of African Art, where it will become part of the collection.

Each iteration of “Create to Free Yourselves” is unique. For this exhibition, the artist had a portrait of Warren Robbins, the founder of the museum, painted in Benin, and integrated components that speak the museum’s origins in the Civil Rights Movement and its first location in the former home of abolitionist and statesman, Frederick Douglass. The installation is the artist’s vision of the past and the future of the museum.

“Georges Adéagbo is one of the most significant artists alive today,” said Karen Milbourne, senior curator of the museum and curator of the exhibition. “Experiencing his work is like traveling the map of another person’s mind. He shares with us what he reads and sees, inviting us to join him on a journey of association and thought. And the journeys are always thoughtful, provocative and visually stunning.”

“I do not work like a painter or sculptor who works in his studio and then sends his work to galleries or museums,” Adéagbo said. “All my installations are custom made, and I realize them after months of preparing the components in the exhibition space, which becomes my studio. It is a dialogue of request and proposal. ‘Create to Free Yourselves’ is a personal meditation on ‘the inseparable connection between the life of a person and their purpose.’”

The exhibition is accompanied by a brochure and label copy available in three languages.

Born in Cotonou, Benin, in 1942, Adéagbo studied law in Côte d’Ivoire and business administration in France in the 1960s. He began his artistic career when he returned to Benin after his father’s death in 1971 and became Africa’s first artist to win the prestigious Honorable Mention at the Venice Biennale (1999). His work has appeared in influential exhibitions worldwide and can be found in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Oslo National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design and the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, among others. As a recipient of a 2019 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship at the National Museum of American History, Adéagbo was inspired to produce “Create to Free Yourselves,” which opened at President Lincoln’s Cottage and Chesterwood Museum before coming to the National Museum of African Art and its permanent collection.

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