Dallas scored a major show of Southern African art. How? Spicy chicken
"If You Look Hard Enough, You Can See Our Future" at the African American Museum in Fair Park features 60 artworks from Southern Africa. It's one small part of a 25,000-item art collection from the late owner of Nando's chicken chain.
Curator Laurie Ann Farrell glances up across the tall, sunlit, central atrium of the African American Museum in Fair Park.
"You know, this is such a beautiful building," she said, "and such a beautiful space."
Not so beautiful this Monday morning, perhaps.
There's the echoing bustle and clutter of a sizable art show being installed: people moving ladders, people checking computers, giant wooden crates waiting to be unpacked. The exhibition is "If You Look Hard Enough, You Can See Our Future" — the title is borrowed from a Stephen Hobbs print in the show — which is making its world premiere this week in Dallas with 62 works from 55 artists. They include photographers, painters, sculptors, printmakers and weavers from South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"These artists are known in South Africa," Farrell said, "and some of them have broken on into Europe."
There are world-renowned figures in the show — notably William Kentridge, famous for his prints, drawings and films. But when asked if any of the other artists are actually making their American debut in Dallas, Farrell said, "About 85 percent of them, if not more. I'm so excited — this is an introduction. And I just think it's a gift to Dallas."
At the entrance to one of the two galleries is a big, bold, photographic self-portrait of the Black South African artist Zanele Muholi. It's being put up like strips of wallpaper, carefully lined up. The collection gets just the data file for the image, and then the museum has it printed locally according to the artist's instructions. Only one copy of the image is displayed anywhere.
Muholi's face is one of the show's iconic images.
Muholi is "like the hottest thing right now in South African photography," Farrell said. This particular image is from their "Dark Lioness" (Somnyama Ngonyama) series.
Muholi first gained attention photographing Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in South Africa. But their striking "Dark Lioness" portraits have taken them to a whole new level: They paint themselves entirely in black face against a black background. All that glitters in this example are mostly the whites of Muholi's eyes, plus their necklace and their headdress of safety pins. The jewelry is like a steel lion's mane.
Farrell has loosely divided the exhibition into portraits, landscapes, cityscapes and abstraction. But there are also examples of traditional African crafts being used for contemporary purposes — like the intricate, bead-and-textile tapestries of Igshaan Adams.
"You Can See Our Future" is not expressly focused on the history of apartheid and colonialism. But throughout, artworks address the bitter legacies of both. One collection of black-and-white photographs even includes a picture of a family's eviction notice — evoking the history of forced removals in South Africa, which is so long and so large, arguments over who owns what properties remain deep.
It's hard not to hear echoes of Fair Park's own history of buying out nearby Black homeowners on the cheap. And the African American Museum itself stands where the Hall of Negro Life once attracted people during the 1936 Texas Centennial — and then was immediately torn down.
Recently, Fair Park institutions have made efforts at acknowledging this history and to connect with the local community.
Farrell, who lives in Dallas, is not just the curator of "If You Look Hard Enough." She's a major reason it's here.
Farrell's written several books on African art and was senior curator at the Dallas Contemporary before COVID hit. Before all that, she worked seven years as a curator at the Museum for African Art in New York (now The Africa Center).
That's how Farrell met the late Dick Enthoven. Enthoven, who died in December, was a billionaire philanthropist and owner of Nando's, a spicy chicken restaurant chain. He bought it in 2014. The first restaurant was established in 1987 by Robert Brozen and Fernando Duerte (hence, the name Nando's). It has since become a global franchise, earning more than a billion dollars in revenue last year from 1,200 outlets worldwide.
Enthoven was a leading collector and supporter of South African artists. (He once said the chief satisfaction of gaining a fortune was spending it wisely). He gave Kentridge the money to make his first film, for instance. But Enthoven supported thousands of other artists — literally, thousands. His collection contains more than 25,000 items. More than just buying their works, Enthoven commissioned them and gave them exposure in international exhibitions.
But also, particularly, in his restaurants.
"They wanted to have a uniquely South African aesthetic," said Farrell. Every Nando's is different. In this, they're a little like the House of Blues or the old Planet Hollywood. But instead of decorating locations with celebrity guitars or movie props, each Nando's uses real art works, from living artists. The company even has its own curator, who consciously maintains that aesthetic in its restaurants.
"So this has just been a labor of love for me," said Farrell, who became fascinated by African art as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
When asked what it was like to carve out a show of fewer than 100 works from a 25,000-piece collection, Farrell laughed and said, "Well, it was during COVID lockdown. But I limited the time I would take to do it. I didn't want to have art fatigue."
Still, even though Nando's has more than a thousand restaurants around the world, fewer than 40 are in the U.S. And most of those are clustered in and around Chicago and Washington, D.C.
So yes, part of the purpose of "If You Look Hard Enough" is to raise public awareness of Nando's in Texas — because, this year, the company is opening outlets in North Texas and Houston. These are its first restaurants in any western state in America.
And if you're hungry — or curious — you can even sign up online for updates as the openings approach.
"If You Look Hard Enough, You Can See Our Future" runs at the African American Museum through August 13.
CORRECTIONS: This story contained several errors that have been updated. The number of Nando restaurants around the world has been updated, and Dick Enthoven’s ownership of Nando’s has been clarified.
The story has been updated to more accurately reflect the countries represented by the artworks. William Kentridge’s “Walking Man” is a linoleum cut, not a linocut on rice paper. The information on Zanele Muholi’s self-portrait has been updated for accuracy. The Muholi series is called “Dark Lionness,” not “Black Lionness.” The Museum for African Art in New York is now called The Africa Center, not The African Center.
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