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Essay by Dr. Ethelene Whitmire

Exhibit Curator

University of Wisconsin-Madison, Professor, Department of African American Studies

red painted walls of a gallery displaying paintings
Inside the Nordic Utopia? exhibit. Credit Jim Bennett/Photo Bakery for the National Nordic Museum.

The Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century exhibition is an expansion of my research about African Americans in Denmark. In 2010, I went to Copenhagen on a whim. I was watching a lot of Danish films and decided to spend two months abroad during my first year-long sabbatical from my job as a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. During my repeated trips to Copenhagen over the next several years, I discovered stories about African Americans who performed, toured, studied, lived, and died in Denmark. While I was familiar with African Americans who lived in Paris including writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, visual artist Barbara Chase-Riboud, sculptors Meta Vaux Fuller, Augusta Savage, and Elizabeth Prophet, painters Loïs Mailou Jones and Henry Ossawa Turner, to name just a few, I was unaware of African American artists who made the Nordic countries their home. This exhibition includes people who lived in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland represented by music, paintings, textiles, sculpture, and videos.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, mainly in chronological order beginning with many people who temporarily made the Nordic countries their homes apart from the singer Anne Brown, who was Bess in Porgy and Bess who spent the rest of her life in Norway. She described her career in a video and the museum displays an Ebony magazine article, “I gave up my country for love.” The visual artist William Henry Johnson is well-represented in this section. Like many in the exhibition, he lived in more than one Nordic country and the exhibition includes paintings capturing the people and landscapes he saw in Norway and Denmark in the 1930s. 

The second section captures the relationships between the African Americans who lived abroad. The dancer Doug Crutchfield, shown in the film Dancing Prophet, purchased art by the African American painters who lived in the Nordic countries where he had dance schools in Sweden and Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s. The painters often included jazz-related themes in their art, for example, Clifford Jackson’s Quartet shows four fictional musicians playing in a band. The artists were no doubt influenced by the significant numbers of acclaimed jazz musicians who lived there including tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon whose album, A Day in Copenhagen, is the soundtrack of the exhibition playing throughout the galleries. 

Three paintings on a red wall by African American artists working in Scandanavia
Close-ups of artwork in the Nordic Utopia? exhibit. Credit Jim Bennett/Photo Bakery for the National Nordic Museum.

The last section includes three visual artists who lived and died in the Nordics. Walter Williams (1920 – 1998), who made Denmark his home, has several paintings in the exhibition including Southern Landscape, which recalls African American history. In this hopeful work, Black children play in fields filled with sunflowers as birds and butterflies soar above; however, cotton fields and shanties appear in the not-too-distant background as a reminder of African American history. Williams moved to Denmark in the 1960s, around the same time as Ronald Burns (1942 – 2024), a fellow New York-born artist. Nordic Utopia? includes both drawings and paintings by Burns who was the only living artist in the exhibition when it opened in March 2024. He died the following month in Copenhagen. Finally, the exhibition ends with Howard Smith (1928 – 2021) who made Finland his home and designed for Finnish firms Vallila and Arabia. He created collages, textiles, and sculptures that are included in the exhibition. 

Why the question mark in the title Nordic Utopia? Although the majority of the African Americans loved living in the Nordic countries, they sometimes had difficulties as captured in the 1970 television program Anden Mans Land or Another Man’s Country included in the exhibition about the experiences of African Americans in Denmark. Or, there is a quote from Howard Smith, who temporarily returned to the United States for fourteen years. He explained that he grew lonesome in Finland. He said, “I need the spiritual input, I guess, of being around Black people.” Smith eventually returned to Finland and lived there for the rest of his life. 

Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century is curated by Dr. Ethelene Whitmire, Professor, University of Wisconsin—Madison, with Leslie Anne Anderson, Chief Curator, National Nordic Museum. The exhibition is organized by the National Nordic Museum, Seattle and is on view through July 21, 2024.

Use the code ARTENOIR at checkout online to waive the price of both admission and registration for the upcoming programs listed below:


June 13, “Howard Smith: African American Artist in Finland” with Dr. Bobbye Tigerman


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. She’s a former American Scandinavian Foundation fellow and Fulbright Scholar at the University of Copenhagen. Whitmire is writing a book about African Americans in 20th Century Denmark.


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