“Facing the Future,” a multimedia “constellation” in the words of its creator, South African artist Lhola Amira, brings something new and unexpected to the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It’s a window onto a spiritual experience targeted at healing African and African-diaspora communities from the effects of colonialism, land dispossession and racism, and at the same time, incorporates and draws meaning from the museum’s acclaimed collection of African art.  

It’s the first time that work by Amira, who uses the pronoun they, has been shown in the United States.  

A notice at the entrance states that it is a spiritual space. The visitor enters a small gallery surrounded by stunning examples from the museum’s art collection, including a splendid vessel from Mali, Dogon, depicting the creation of the world.  

A 12th– to 15th-century statue from Djenné in the inner Niger River delta is of a majestic woman, a child strapped to her back, bringing an offering to the god Oshun. In another case are striking male and female figures.  

Beside this gallery is Amira’s multi-media environment, “Philisa: Zinza Mphefumlo Wami” (it translates to “Let it be healed, be steady my breath, my spirit”), a gateway to healing through contemplation and ritual. A bowl holds sacred salt, which guests are invited to place in their hands, then return to the decorated vessel; and large jugs of illuminated water punctuate the space. Large cloth panels patterned in brown and black on a white field fringed with golden strands are suspended from the ceiling. Also hung from above are long multi-colored strands of beads, made by women’s beading circles.

Another arresting element of the space hangs from above. A letter from a graduate student at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, asks him if Negroes cry and if so, under what general conditions. There is no indication of a response from Du Bois, but a panel reveals how, in 1991, poet Lucille Clifton answered: 

he do 

she do 

 they live 

they love  

they try 

they tire 

they flee 

they fight 

they bleed  

they reak 

they moan 

they mourn 

they weep  

they die 

they do 

they do  

they d

An arresting poem is part of “Lhola Amira: Facing the Future.” (Photo by Jorge Bachman/Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) 

In Amira’s words, the soundtrack in this section, “the Black scream,” is a cultural wailing arising from unresolved pain and the search for peace.  

The galleries also display superb African masks and headpieces, furniture and statues, many made to serve religious or spiritual functions. Some objects from the permanent collection on view focus on ancestors, spirituality and healing.  

At one corner of a gallery is “Irmandade: The Shape of Water in Pindorama,” a single-channel video projection produced and directed by Amira, who is pictured walking through an Afro-Brazilian state, Bahia, that played a major part in the Middle Passage, the period when slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas. Moving with a silent intensity through the terrain, Amira performs acts of spiritual healing on the water, trees and land in the video.  

In one sequence, Amira kneels and slowly washes the feet of some of the city’s female inhabitants. The act was repeated at the opening reception of the installation last month.  

South African artist Lhola Amira appears in a video detailing a spiritual journey in Brazil in “Facing the Future” at the de Young Museum. (Courtesy of SMAC Gallery)

“Lhola Amira: Facing the Future” launches a new program of special exhibitions that will interpret the African art collection as a living and evolving practice through the lens of contemporary art, according to Natasha Becker, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s first curator of African art, who has been at the position since December 2020. 

“Lhola Amira: Facing the Future” continues through Dec. 3 the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. General admission (excludes special exhibitions) is $15 for adults; visit famsf.org.