Press Release  November 14, 2019

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness

National Museum of African Art

Dada Khanyisa (b. 1991, Umzimkhulu, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa; works in Cape Town), AMA #WCW, 2017. Acrylic and mixed media on wood. Gift of Shari and John Behnke.

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness opens at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art Nov. 16. With nearly 50 artworks from more than 40 artists, the exhibition tells the story of key heroic principles and people in Africa’s arts and history, and it invites visitors to consider the core values of leadership—justice, integrity, generosity and empathy—embodied in the art. Each artwork in the exhibition is paired with a historic African person, a “hero in history,” who embodies the thematic value shown in the artwork.

National Museum of African Art

Possibly Bvu Kwam (Active early 19th century, Isu kingdom, Grassfields region, Cameroon), Figure of King Bay Akiy, Early 19th century. Wood, ivory, pigment, human hair, bone, cloth. Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company.

“The exhibition comes at a crucial time in the public understanding of Africa and its arts and history,” said Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the museum. “Coinciding with two momentous historical anniversaries—400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved African laborer in North America, and the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections—it invites visitors to consider both the horrors and hopes at work in the continent’s history. Through the stories they tell, the artists assembled here challenge us to be our best selves.”

Heroes features well-known artworks from the museum’s permanent collection, as well as several new acquisitions. Among the new works on display is a work by former South African president Nelson Mandela. The watercolor depicts the rock quarry in the prison on Robben Island where he was exiled for many years and is a haunting embodiment of the sacrifices he made in the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

“Heroes expresses the National Museum of African Art’s commitment to the dignity, complexity and universally accessible excellence of African art history,” said Kevin Dumouchelle, curator at the museum. “Further, it stands as a testament to the museum’s commitment to the telling of unique, compelling and specific historical African stories. The artworks in “Heroes” invite us to imagine our roles in building a new future.”

Digital Engagement

Visitors to the exhibition can engage further with the artworks on their smartphones using the Smithsonian-developed, web-based HI application. Visitors can scan a work of art to discover an added layer of digital content, including videos, images and key facts connecting the artworks to their corresponding “heroes in history.” The HI application does not require download, and it can be accessed at The digital exhibition will also be available on monitors in the gallery and on the museum’s website. The museum’s first exhibition-specific playlist will be available on Spotify Nov. 16.  

National Museum of African Art

Sue Williamson (b. 1941, Lichfield, United Kingdom; works in Cape Town, South Africa), Winnie Mandela and the Assassination of Dr. Asvat, 1999. Lithograph on paper with plastic film. Museum purchase.

Educational and Public Programs

Public programs will accompany the exhibition throughout its run to engage the museum’s diverse audiences K–12 to adult. The exhibition’s curator will conduct a “first look” public tour of exhibition highlights Saturday, Nov.16, at 2 p.m. Visitors should meet at the museum’s visitor desk on the Pavilion level at 2 p.m.

About Curator Kevin D. Dumouchelle

Dumouchelle joined the National Museum of African Art in October 2016. He was the project lead for Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts (2017), the museum’s award-winning permanent galleries, along with chief curator Christine Mullen Kreamer and curator Karen E. Milbourne. He was the coordinating curator for World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean (2018) and Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women (2018), as well as the upcoming exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange in Medieval Saharan Africa, which opens April 11, 2020. Previously, Dumouchelle was at the Brooklyn Museum for a decade as the curator in charge of the arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands. He earned a doctorate, Master of Philosophy, and master of arts in art history and archaeology from Columbia University after earlier degrees from Georgetown and Oxford University.

About the National Museum of African Art

The National Museum of African Art is the only museum in the world dedicated solely to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of Africa’s arts across time and media. The museum’s collection of over 12,000 artworks spans more than 1,000 years of African history and includes a variety of media from across the continent—from sculpture and painting, to photography, pottery, jewelry, textile, video and sound art. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. The museum is located at 950 Independence Ave. S.W., near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines. For more information, call (202) 633-4600 or visit the National Museum of African Art’s website: For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000. Follow the museum on TwitterYouTubeInstagram and Facebook and join in the discussion about the exhibition on social media using #AfricanHeroes.

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