The Smithsonian African Art Museum’s newest exhibition invites visitors to descend from heaven, through purgatory and into hell. Spanning all four levels of the museum, “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” takes Dante Alighieri out of Italy and into Africa, bringing together more than 40 artists from 19 African nations and the diaspora. Dividing their works into each of the three possible afterlives, curator Simon Njami chose to focus on the universal nature of Dante’s epic poem rather than its Catholic overtones. The goal is to “take [heaven, purgatory and hell] out of the cradle of the church and to make them something everybody can live with,” he says. Njami hopes the touring exhibition, which opened at the museum last week, will call into question people’s preconceptions about the afterlife, Africa and African art. “I like people to be uneasy at an exhibition,” he says. Elena Goukassian (for Express)

‘To Sleep’ from ‘The Binding’
Christine Dixie, 2009

South African artist Christine Dixie offers an unusual take on the story of Abraham and Isaac, which she sees as more of a bonding experience than a near-filicide. In the six etchings that make up “The Binding,” a sleeping boy is reborn after dreaming of his own sacrifice. (If you look closely, you can see the outline of a toy gun etched into his blanket, above.) So why is this series in the “heaven” section? Curator Simon Njami notes that not everyone has the same understanding of heaven, purgatory and hell. “These are shifting notions,” he says.

Film still from ‘Beatrice and Virgil’
Berry Bickle, 2013

Hell-1Hell was the most popular category among artists in the show. “60 to 65 percent of the artists wanted to be in hell,” Njami says. Zimbabwean artist Berry Bickle’s contribution — a video loop on two screens — features the characters who helped guide Dante through hell in “Inferno”: Beatrice, a woman Dante was obsessed with for most of his life, and the Roman poet Virgil. Dressed in traditional Zimbabwean attire, Beatrice is a ghost-like presence, while Virgil guides viewers through the hellish history of Zimbabwe.

‘The 99 Series’
Aida Muluneh, 2013

Aida Muluneh is an Ethiopian photographer who graduated from Howard University in 2001. The seven photographs that comprise “The 99 Series,” represent each of the seven deadly sins, which are also featured prominently in Dante’s “Purgatorio.” For Catholics, purgatory is a place where people are purged of their sins before going to heaven, but people also use the word to mean a state of expectantly waiting for something to happen. In this photograph, an ominous third red hand adds a feeling of nervous anticipation.

National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW; through Aug. 2, free.

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