University professors, researchers, professors, actors, singers, dancers, models, film directors, entrepreneurs, architects, writers, journalists, anthropologists, human rights experts, doctors, activists, migration specialists, lawyers, politicians… They all watch from the facade of the National Museum of Anthropology in Madrid to passers-by walking through the streets surrounding the building. They are the faces of the photographic exhibition We are Afro!, by Jose Luis Simon. They and they are just a small example of how much the Afro-descendant community has contributed to Spanish society for decades.
“The idea is to recognize all their work. Of course, renowned characters are recognized, but the idea is to symbolize all the contribution of the Afro-descendant community. They are Afro-descendants or African people who come here. And it also includes, in some cases, people who are not Afro-descendants, but who have a certain relationship with that group”, explains Luis Pérez Armiño, curator of the museum.
In the exhibition, the gates of the building become accomplices of the visitors. Panels hang on them that allow the portrayed to be identified and learn a little more about them. A set that is complemented by a series of writings that offer context to the exhibition.
“From the museographic point of view, a photographic exhibition outside the building is still curious. It also has a symbolic game because this is an exhibition that is part of the cycle Let’s go around the world which celebrates the 5th centenary of Magellan-Elcano’s circumnavigation of the world. When boarding the African route, Elcano leaves from the Moluccas Islands and tries to avoid the African continent at all times”, continues the expert. He does it because the Portuguese are there. When the Castilians and the Portuguese divided up the world in 1494 with the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, the latter kept the entire African continent. Therefore, it was dangerous for Elcano to approach his shores. He avoided them as much as he could, touching them only when hunger and thirst left him no choice, until he reached Cape Verde.
When it comes to talking about black people, the conversation in the media is pendulum: either they negatively highlight street vendors and travelers in small boats, or positively flatter elite athletes
Jose Luis Simon, photographer
With the photographs of José Luis Simón, the museum wants to remember that African stage. But instead of fleeing those lands, he has wanted the Afro-descendant community that lives in Spain to occupy its outer walls. Thus, the visitor will be able to symbolically circumnavigate the building and meet first-hand some people who, with their contributions, have been and are fundamental in the construction of a fairer society, in which discrimination should not take place. “For this reason, this time we are approaching the coasts of that continent, through the professional and human trajectories of this large group of people who have decided to contribute to creating environments of coexistence and effective equality”, assures the introduction to the exposition.
“It has always struck me how when it comes to talking about black people, the conversation in the media is pendulum. Or they negatively highlight street vendors and travelers in small boats, or positively flatter elite athletes. It is clear that there are many people between the two points of view, but in the end they crush the sovereign people with these concepts and hide the entire community that is in between, working with their professions, with their families and with a life like that of the rest of the Spaniards”, highlights Simón, visual artist and photographer from Madrid, author of the portraits, when asked about the reasons that led him to embark on this project. Later, he points out that he has wanted to bring to light “a lot of well-known black people, so that they impact a little more, and that they are part of Spanish society; to contribute my grain of sand to one of the main claims of Afro-descendants: the lack of visibility”.
Obviously, this exhibition will not end the racism and stereotypes that persecute this community. “Politicians and the media collaborate little and even harm by using Afro-descendants as they are interested in for their business,” the author emphasizes. That, at the same time, he is convinced that many initiatives like his “are necessary to transfer another thought to society in line with the 21st century.” And he ends: “But above all they must be non-radical initiatives, because radicalism does not help and even harms. It is time to educate and teach the full coexistence of all”.
The exhibition We are Afro! It will continue to surround the National Museum of Anthropology until October 16 and is also included among the activities of the International Decade for Afro-descendants 2015-2024, proclaimed by the UN.