I Miss Aimé Mpane’s Maman Calcule

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski on why she misses Aimé Mpne’s Maman Calcule (2013).

Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule, 2013, Mural on pieces of wood, 83 x 73 in., The Phillips Collection, Dreier Fund for Acquisitions. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

I definitely miss one of our newer acquisitions, Maman Calcule, a large (almost seven by six feet) mural constructed of individual pieces of wood by Congolese artist Aimé Mpane. I met the artist and fell in love with his work years earlier at the (e)merge art fair here in DC that used to take place at Capitol Skyline Hotel. We actually added a work to the collection then in 2012, Mapasa, through The Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Award. Many of us were drawn to Mpane’s work, and you’ll find his small ten-by-ten-inch wood carvings in a variety of collections across the city, several of them designated as promised gifts to the museum. Mpane carves and shaves his plywood with a traditional African woodworking tool, an adze. He depicts people—men, women, and children—often emphasizing brightly colored traditional clothes and hair styles, capturing with uncanny brilliance the vibrant life of the street scenes of his native Kinshasa.

Maman Calcule presents a large portrait head, staring straight ahead with a penetrating, even severe gaze. This is a figure of dignity and authority. Tightly wound braids of hair surround the face like an aureole. The versos of each “brick” of wood is painted red, creating a glowing atmosphere that pushes the image forward and further amplifies its presence. Mpane splits his time between the Congo and Belgium, pointedly living out the post-colonial complexities that tether the former European power and its exploited subject state. It is very important to include Mpane’s work in our growing collection, thereby further expanding the story we tell of modern and contemporary art, beyond the confines of an old-fashioned European-American narrative.

Riffs and Relations: African Art and Moderism

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now on view through January 3, 2021.

Early in the 20th century, African art, displayed at ethnographic museums in Europe and circulated in publications, came to the attention of artists as source material for new and exciting possibilities. Yet the objects that arrived in Europe by way of colonialism were interpreted mainly through visual cues and without proper context. This set up an uneven power dynamic and a false dichotomy between “civilized” European and “primitive” African cultures. The European fascination with the art of Africans and other non-Western cultures became known as “Modernist Primitivism.”

In the 1920s and 30s, Harlem Renaissance cultural leader Alain Locke advised in The New Negro and other writings that African American artists draw upon European aesthetic models (including Cubism and German Expressionism) indebted to African art. He also encouraged artists to learn more about Africa to help define their modern identity. In their studies, they looked to photographs of African art featured in Locke’s publications and others and attended exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art’s 1935 African Negro Art, which encompassed over 600 objects primarily from European and American collections. Winold Reiss and Aaron Douglas were among the many artists who engaged with African art in their own work.

Winold Reiss, African Phantasy: Awakening, c. 1925, Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 19 3/4 x 14 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Museum purchase

An immigrant from Germany, artist and illustrator Winold Reiss made a great impact on the visual culture of the Harlem Renaissance. Reiss illustrated Alain Locke’s The New Negro, a publication in which modern black identities were explored and imagined. Reiss’s 1920s modernist style was inflected with the latest Art Deco trends as well as the European modernist vogue for African art. African Phantasy: Awakening was published in the first edition of The New Negro. In an imaginative African setting, Reiss depicts a black couple dancing among patterns and symbols that recall a mythical African past. In spite of some stereotypical aspects, Reiss’s Jazz Age fantasy was of its time. His illustrations in numerous publications had an indelible influence on the development on African American modernists, especially his student Aaron Douglas.

Aaron Douglas, The Negro in an African Setting (later variant of panel 1 of Aspects of Negro Life), 1954, Oil on canvas board, 20 x 24 in., Collection of Steven L. Jones, Philadelphia and Chicago

The early works of Aaron Douglas (b. 1899, Topeka, KS; d. 1979, Nashville, TN) defined the images of the New Negro movement. By synthesizing Alain Locke’s charge to combine African arts and modernist style, he created a new idiom through which African American stories could be told. His aesthetic was heavily influenced by his teacher German modernist Winold Reiss who also advised him to study the arts of Africa.

Douglas is highly regarded for his epic four-panel mural cycle, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Adopting aspects of Cubism, he employed his signature aesthetic to chronicle the movement of African Americans from an African setting through slavery and Reconstruction to the vagaries of modern identity. The Negro in an African Setting, a variant of the first panel in the mural cycle, features many of the same elements of the original mural—men and women dancing and playing instruments, an African styled sculpture, and a border of lush foliage—all animated by concentric circles that radiate outward. New to the scene is a lone female observing from the margins.

STABLE x The Phillips Collection (Part III)

We’ve partnered with STABLE arts, a studio complex in DC that provides visual artists with an active workspace. STABLE artists picked a permanent collection artwork and explain how it intersects with their own practice. Visit the Phillips Instagram for more STABLE artwork.

Read Part I
Read Part II


Ying Zhu (@Yoyoying)

The first time I stood inside the Laib Wax Room, the sense of being wrapped was overwhelming. Laib’s choice of bees wax as a material intertwines nature and man made, ephemeral and permanent. It transcends time, and led my mind wonder where past and future converge. The work I choose to share is a sprig of pine suspended in air, each needle wrapped with thread. As time passes, needles start to fall, effortlessly demonstrating grace, ephemeral fragility. It unwrapped the course of life/time passing. As an artist, utilizing natural material, and watching it change and take a life of its own path was a very powerful experience. It was a way of learning to acknowledge and accept.

Born and raised in China, Ying Zhu lives and works in DC, and is a proud STABLE artist!

(LEFT) Wolfgang Laib, Wax Room: Wohin bist Du gegangen – wohin gehst Du? (Where have you gone – where are you going?), 2013, Beeswax, light bulb The Laib Wax Room is supported by The Phillips Collection Dreier Fund for Acquisitions; gifts in memory of trustee Caroline Macomber; Brian Dailey and Paula Ballo Dailey; a community of online contributors; and a partial gift of the artist. Wax donated by Sperone Westwater, New York (RIGHT) Ying Zhu, No Strings Attached


Matt Storm (@mattstormphoto)

I was enthralled by Zilia Sánchez’s show at the Phillips in spring 2019. At the time, I was struggling to figure out how to create photographs that stretched across space and engaged the viewer’s body as an equal, and were photographs at their core. Sánchez’s stretched, sculpted canvas pieces were a revelation—clearly paintings, clearly in space, undeniably powerful. Anyone I talked to that spring heard about that show. My work now includes “in space” pieces that feature large-space fabric photographs installed around an armature, letting the work truly share space with the viewer. I’m inspired by how many years and media Sánchez’s career has spanned while retaining a singular, authentic, innovative, and witty voice.

Matt Storm is a photo-based artist in Washington, DC, creating work about identity, using visual topics including self-portraiture, transgender and queer issues, family, and community. He serves as Chair of the LGBTQ Caucus of the Society for Photographic Education, and is a 2020 recipient of the Arts & Humanities Fellowship from Washington DC’s Commission on the Arts & Humanities. Deeply involved in DC’s transgender community, Storm also engages in transgender-related curating projects. Screen reader support enabled.

(LEFT) Zilia Sánchez, Maquinista, diptico (Machinist, diptych), 2008, Acrylic on stretched canvas, 62 x 13 5/8 x 6 in, each., The Phillips Collection, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2016 (RIGHT) Matt Storm, Act of Looking II, 05, Going for It – In Space


Leigh Davis (@leighdavisprojects)

It’s been 10 years since I visited (and revisited) Franz Erhard Walther’s Work as Action at Dia Beacon. His thinking/making/process turned me upside down in the best way. As a spectator you must take part in his work in order to complete the aesthetic experience. These works require not only reception but participation. His works are unique opportunities to be more open, to trust, and to be present with others (strangers alike). When I create installations or site-based works I think of what I felt through his work; sharing in the process of art rather than its product.

Leigh Davis is an interdisciplinary artist who explores the intersection of culture, community, memory, and place. Her work has featured at Open Source Gallery and BRIC (Brooklyn), EFA Project Space (NYC), Oliver Art Center at CCA (Oakland), and MICA (Baltimore). Her recent project Inquiry into the ELE (2016-19) sponsored by NYFA, was exhibited at Vox Populi (Philadelphia), Smith Center, and Transformer (both DC) and she teaches at Parsons School of Design (NY).

(LEFT) Franz Erhard Walther, Roter Gesang (Red Song), 1984, Cotton, wood, each sculpture: 90 1/2 x 29 1/2 x 11 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Arthur and Carol Goldberg, 2013 (RIGHT) Leigh Davis, Secular Columbarium for the Island, Participatory Installation, 2011 Capitol Skyline Hotel, DC


Nancy Daly (@nancydaly)

The work I selected that relates to Papal Thrown is from a photographic series called “American Miniature,” which I completed in 2019 with Kim Llerena after a series of cross-country road trips. The series reveals an affinity for the kitsch that comes along with exploring roadside America. Souvenirs from various sites are presented against brightly colored backdrops. Souvenirs present a strange dichotomy—they are inherently and inextricably linked to a place, but their value relies on them becoming divorced from that place and re-contextualized in an entirely new one. Robert’s painting clearly relates compositionally and in her use of color but I also see connections between the work in terms of divorcing a loaded object from its context in the world and the kind of disembodied nostalgia this creates in a piece.

Nancy’s current body of work examines how the development of the online social world is affecting identity and social behavior. Nancy Daly is a graduate of the Photographic and Electronic Media MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She lives and works in Washington, DC, where she maintains an active studio practice, exhibiting nationally while also working as the Program Director for Hamiltonian Artists.

(LEFT) Julie Roberts, Papal Throne, 1998, Oil on acrylic ground on cotton duck, 36 x 36 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the Tony Podesta Collection, 2014 (RIGHT) Nancy Daly, Third Man Records, Detroit, MI (matches)


Charles Jean-Pierre (@cjpgallery)

I was first introduced to Jacob Lawrence’s seminal work as a graduate student at Howard University. Later when I became an art teacher, The Phillips Collection became a vital resource for me to engage in discussions with my students about the mass movement of African Americans from rural southern towns to northern metropolises like DC, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York. Panel 1 resonates the most with me because it sets the stage for exploring the lasting cultural, political, and societal impact of my own migration story. Lawrence’s work inspired a series of my own entitled, “Future Memories: Exploring the Diasporic Imagination” to illustrate the rich tapestry of the contemporary Caribbean and Latin American migration experience.

The lines, spaces, and gaps in my work represent the absences felt growing up in an immigrant home. My practice recognizes the erasure of our complex histories and challenges the narrative that we are perpetual outsiders. My work attempts to create the informed cultural context needed to make sense of the American connection to the Caribbean, and vice versa.

(LEFT) Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans.,1940-41, Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942 (RIGHT) Charles Jean-Pierre, The Autobiography of My Mother


Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter (@gibsonhunterstudio)

I was a figurative artist until I hit a plateau. It was a place where the figure got in the way of my ideas. I had just had an exhibition titled Suspicious Activities, a series surrounding the war in Iraq in 2008. I had worked on Suspicious Activities for three years, absolutely compelled by my sense of fury surrounding the war in Iraq and the gentrification taking hold in my community. The figure began to betray me. I could not make it express the turmoil I was feeling. I felt that I was at some type of impasse. Mr Gilliam attended that exhibition. He asked me to return and review the exhibition with him, and he walked the exhibition with me asking questions, offering insights and encouraging words. He was nice enough to open his studio to me, share books, and discuss art with myself and other artists he took interest in. Over the years I have had the opportunity to watch his work progress, to see him continue to push himself to grow, and to observe his interactions with his staff. Mr. Gilliam is prolific, focused, and driven. To know him has been tremendously instructional.

Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter is a mixed media artist living in Washington, DC.

(LEFT) Sam Gilliam, Purple Antelope Space Squeeze, 1987, Diptych: Relief, etching, aquatint and collagraph on handmade paper with embossing, hand-painting and painted collage, 41 1/2 x 81 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Bequest of Marion F. and Norman W. Goldin, 2017 (RIGHT) Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter, Dawn


Tim Doud (@Tim.doud)

I’ve had an interest in George Braque since I was an undergrad. I like the use of flatness in his work and with a particular affinity for the way he flips the objects in space. It is unsettling. My work over the last few years has engaged collage—by making paintings of collaged images

Tim Doud is a multimedia artist with an emphasis on painting. He is the co-founder of STABLE in Washington, DC, and co-founder of the ‘sindikit project in Baltimore. Doud is a Professor at American University.

(LEFT) Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929, Oil, sand and charcoal on canvas 57 3/8 x 44 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1934 (RIGHT) Tim Doud, CDGJWAT (Lt Blue) M