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Strategic Interplay: African Art and Imagery in Black and White


Strategic Interplay: African Art and Imagery in Black and White explores connections between African art and the ancient game of chess. The two fields of strategic endeavor have intertwined, inspired, and influenced each other in ways both overt and indirect for nearly one and half millennia. The connections date from the late 7th century, when the royal game spread throughout the continent with the rise of Islamic conquest, to the ‘Age of Discovery’ in the 15th century onward, when African talent and materials sourced Europe’s burgeoning appetite for black labor and ivory sets. By the nineteenth century, chess emerged as a potent allegory for European colonialism in Africa. The strategic maneuvers of the game mirrored the power dynamics of colonial expansion, with the chessboard becoming a symbolic battlefield for domination and control. This period saw the creation of chess sets and artworks depicting power struggles between Europeans and Africans, reflecting the socio-political realities of the time.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, chess motifs – particularly the iconic black and white checkerboard grid and the royal pieces - from pawns to queens and knights to kings - assumed even greater resonance with African art. European avant-garde artists used both chess and African imagery to express altogether new modernist sensibilities while African artists reimagined chess motifs both as poetic analogies to post-colonial conditions and as decorative patterns channeling indigenous design and symbolic meaning. The story of African art and chess reveals complex histories of cultural innovation, creative exchange, and competitive interplay from antiquity to the present time.

The exhibition is organized in three sections and comprises sixty-four artworks, including sculptures, textiles, ceramics, paintings and photographs held in the permanent collection of the Toledo Museum of Art and in other prominent museums and private collections. Diverse treatments of the archetypal black and white chess grid motif and its symbolic meaning are showcased in provocative pieces from the Kuba Kingdom and Francis Picabia to Bwa artists from Burkina Faso and Pablo Picasso. Ingenious artworks referencing royalty and power by Mary Sibande, Magdalene Odundo, Aida Muleneh, Constantine Brancusi, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, among other historical and contemporary pieces are also showcased. Representative chess sets like Europeans vs. Africans created by ivory artisans in 19th century Dieppe, France are also featured.

Strategic Interplay seeks to broaden understanding about connections between African art and chess, and the strategic acumen involved in both creative pursuits. The exhibition aims to reveal parallel and overlapping metaphors, maneuvers, and motifs between the seemingly disparate fields of African cultural expression and the royal game of creative war-play with hope that viewers might appreciate African art through an alternative lens.


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