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Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century


March 23, 2024 - July 21, 2024


This exhibition is included in a paid General Admission ticket, except on Free First Thursdays. On the first Thursday of every month, General Admission is free and tickets to Nordic Utopia? may be purchased for $5 at the door.

Kirsten Malone, A bebop jazz singer. Babs Gonzales in Nyhavn in Copenhagen, 1968, gelatin silver print from original, Courtesy of Kirsten Mal

...for a variety of reasons: a sense of adventure, love, seeking educational and occupational opportunities, freedom to explore their sexuality, freedom from Jim Crow segregation back home, among many other reasons. Drawing from paintings, photographs, textiles, film, music, and dance, this exhibition captures their journeys as their sense of who they were was transformed through their Nordic encounters. Like Walter Williams's Southern Landscape, life in the Nordic countries could appear idyllic, but upon examining their stories more closely, like the painting, you begin to see hints of elements of the African American past like cotton fields and a shanty combined with elements in the foreground: fields of flowers, children, a bouquet, butterflies and birds taking flight, hopeful for a better day and opportunities for African Americans in the Nordic countries.

Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century illuminates the untold story of African American visual and performing artists, such as Doug Crutchfield, Herb Gentry, Dexter Gordon, William Henry Johnson, Howard Smith, and Walter Williams, who sought new possibilities, inspiration, and environments in the Nordic countries as an alternative to Paris. This exhibition is the first comprehensive examination of this topic.

This exhibition features loans from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park; SMK—the National Gallery of Denmark; and Moderna Museet in Stockholm, among other public collections. It also assembles art and artifacts from private collections, including those of the artists. 

A fully illustrated catalog will accompany Nordic Utopia?. Co-edited by curators Dr. Ethelene Whitmire and Leslie Anne Anderson, this publication features essays by Dr. Temi Odumosu (University of Washington) and Dr. Ryan T. Skinner (Ohio State University).


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Dr. Ethelene Whitmire is the Chair and a professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Whitmire was a Fulbright Scholar and a Visiting Professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Transnational American Studies in 2016-2017. She has received additional fellowships from the American-Scandinavian Foundation and the Lois Roth Endowment. 

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Leslie Anne Anderson is Chief Curator of the National Nordic Museum. She has been an American-Scandinavian Foundation Fellow and a Fulbright scholar at the University of Copenhagen. For her curatorial work, she received the Association of Art Museum Curators Award for Excellence in Exhibition.


1. Walter Williams, Sunflowers, n.d. Mixed media. The Johnson Collection.
2. Kirsten Malone, A bebop jazz singer. Babs Gonzales in Nyhavn in Copenhagen, 1968, gelatin silver print from original, Courtesy of Kirsten Malone.
3. Gallery images courtesy of Jim Bennett/Photo Bakery for National Nordic Museum.