How a First-of-Its-Kind Exhibition About African American Artists in the Nordic Countries Came to Be

African American Studies professor Ethelene Whitmire and Leslie Anderson, chief curator of Seattle's National Nordic Museum, shine a light on the genesis of “Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century."

A museum exhibition of paintings and artifacts in a space with red walls
“Nordic Utopia?” brings together works from sixteen Nordic and American collections to highlight the hidden history of African American visual and performing artists in the Nordic nations. Jim Bennett of Photo Bakery for the National Nordic Museum

Three years in the making, our exhibition “Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century,” now on view at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, examines the hidden history of African American visual and performing artists, writers, activists and scholars who first sought training and launched careers in American urban centers but left for the Nordic countries when travel abroad introduced them to an environment conducive to creative freedom. The curatorial narrative weaves together episodes in the biographies of Josephine Baker, Anne Wiggins Brown, Dexter Gordon, William Henry Johnson, Walter Williams and many others.

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“Nordic Utopia?” is the first exhibition of its kind to explore this topic—an alternative narrative to the oft-told tale of African American expats in Paris—and the result of a collaboration between us, the authors of this article: African American Studies professor Ethelene Whitmire and Leslie Anderson, Chief Curator of Seattle’s National Nordic Museum. The show’s genesis involved scholarly study, support and loans from both individuals and institutions and, maybe most surprisingly, a successful eBay alert.

In 2019, Ethelene gave a talk on African Americans in Denmark at the National Nordic Museum. We struck up a conversation about painter William Henry Johnson, and then in 2021, Leslie proposed partnering on an exhibition inspired by Ethelene’s extensive research. This had long been a dream of Ethelene’s, and she accepted the invitation without hesitation. We soon decided to broaden our project scope beyond Denmark to include Finland, Norway and Sweden, and a preliminary checklist formed from works that Ethelene had become acquainted with during her research: a painting of a jazz quartet by Clifford Jackson, a painting by Herbert Gentry that also captured music-making titled Copenhagen and a mixed-media masterpiece imagining children amid flowers and butterflies in a halcyon landscape by Walter Williams.

A museum exhibition of paintings and artifacts in a space with red walls
An installation view of “Nordic Utopia?,” on at the National Nordic Museum through July 21. Jim Bennett of Photo Bakery for the National Nordic Museum

In her biographical research in Denmark, Ethelene met several individuals who would go on to participate in the project. Ronald and Edith Burns and photographer Kirsten Malone—wife of journalist and co-representative of the Black Panthers in Scandinavia, Leonard “Skip” Malone—lent to the exhibition. Malone shared photographs of Skip, as well as of their friends jazz tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon and bebop jazz singer Babs Gonzales. Ethelene was also familiar with the documentary films Temi i mol (1962) and Anden mands land (1970), produced and aired by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, which would help contextualize the creative work represented in the checklist.

Leslie began searching Nordic and American public and private collections for works of art that could tell this story and expand on the checklist. The Johnson Collection in South Carolina was an early supporter of the project, lending a mixed-media image of sunflowers by Williams, which would become the visual identity of the exhibition. They also lent an oil painting by Johnson of Kerteminde Harbor in Denmark. She secured a loan of the same motif depicted in a watercolor, also by Johnson, which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art in DC. While in Sweden to conduct grant-funded research, Leslie met with Jo Widoff, head of the International Art Collection at Moderna Museet to discuss the project. Moderna Museet loaned paintings by Johnson and Burns, as well as photographs of Gordon at Gyllene Cirkeln, a popular jazz club in Stockholm. Importantly, the photographs were taken by Leif Wigh in 1964; later, he would join the Moderna Museet staff as curator of the medium.

SEE ALSO: London’s National Gallery Presents a History of Violence as Painted By Caravaggio

Challenges to compiling the checklist arose when a significant repository of works by Johnson had a loan moratorium in place. Still, Leslie contacted the curator responsible for the collection and advocated for the loans as a contribution to scholarship. Leslie worked with Jeffrey Lee of RYAN LEE Gallery to identify and track down important works by Gentry in private collections. To complement these earlier works with one from his later career, when Gentry had divided his time between New York and a studio in Malmö, she requested Illumination from the Studio Museum in Harlem. Only months before the exhibition opened, she located a collage titled Cymbals by Sam Middleton, who spent a brief but formative period in Sweden during which he wrote a treatise on collage. Gallerist Gavin Spanierman gladly lent it.

Paintings in various styles hanging on a red wall
Curator Leslie Anderson searched Nordic and American public and private collections for works of art that could tell this story. Jim Bennett of Photo Bakery for the National Nordic Museum

We also discussed objects that the National Nordic Museum could acquire to represent the story of African Americans in the Nordics in perpetuity. Jazz records of music released by Gordon and Duke Jordan, a cryptic self-portrait by Jackson, as well as issues of Ebony Magazine featuring famed singer Anne Wiggins Brown in Norway, dancer Doug Crutchfield in Denmark and Sweden, and US Ambassador to Denmark Terence Todman. When an iconic stretched textile by Howard Smith was unavailable for display, a fellow curator advised them to set an eBay alert, and voilà, Blue Irises entered the Museum’s collection. After the exhibition’s opening, Ronald and Edith Burns donated the Surrealist-inspired Paper Doll Costumes (1966) to the Museum, contributing to a total of nine acquisitions.

One of the most exciting moments in the exhibition’s development was the discovery that artist and designer Howard Smith’s son Josef lived near the Museum. It was serendipity. A teacher in a Seattle school, he was participating in an outreach program offered by Museum staff, and he introduced himself. He generously shared his story with the Museum’s oral history specialist and established a connection to the artist’s studio collection. We borrowed several works from Josef and Smith’s widow Erna. Smith traveled to Finland in 1962 with Young America Presents—a program backed by the CIA to challenge perceptions of race relations abroad—and then spent much of his professional life in Finland, finding an environment favorable to artistic expression, which is where the corpus of his work remains.

Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century brings together works from sixteen Nordic and American collections—many for the first time—to draw transmedial connections and represent a cultural efflorescence. In terms of both lenders and budget size, it is the largest exhibition organized by the Museum. After Seattle, Nordic Utopia?” will travel to two additional venues: the Chazen Museum of Art and Scandinavia House, after which, the loans will disperse, with select paintings and works on paper committed to exciting projects that further amplify the work of the protagonists of this unique story.

Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century” is on view at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle through July 21.

How a First-of-Its-Kind Exhibition About African American Artists in the Nordic Countries Came to Be