Art Across the Black Diaspora

Visualizing Slavery in America, an International Symposium

Celeste-Marie Bernier

Hank Wllis Thomas (symposium presenter), Priceless #1, 2004.  Courtesy of artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.In May 2013, I organized an international symposium with Hannah Durkin at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford, UK on “Art Across the Black Diaspora: Visualizing Slavery in America.” This event was not only generously funded by a Terra Foundation for American Art Academic Program grant but was supported by the Art History Department at the University of Oxford and by the Department of American and  Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. The inspiration for this two-day symposium drawing together African American and Black British artists as well as museum and gallery directors, curators and scholars came from research for my ongoing book project, Imaging Slavery: The Body, Memory and Representation in African American and Black British Artists 1960-2010 (forthcoming University of California Press, 2015). The symposium had a powerful opening with Hank Willis Thomas’s lecture, “What Goes Without Saying” in which he interwove a provocative array of the visual paraphernalia and textual ephemera of transatlantic slavery into his fascinating discussion of his diverse bodies of work. Addressing issues related to past, present and future white mainstream strategies of black commodification, appropriation, and branding, his mixed-media installations, digital prints, and collaged imagery constitute an original, hard-hitting, and experimental tour de force. 

Lubaina Himid, Vomitting Toff, 2007. Courtesy of the Art Across the Black Diaspora Symposium.The opening panel to the symposium, “Theorizing Black Diasporic Visual Cultures” was chaired by Craig Clunas, chair of the Art History Department, University of Oxford, and included Alan Rice (University of Central Lancashire), talking on the subject of “Playing In the Dark (with the Archive): African Atlantic Artists and Radical Interventions.”Adopting a long time-frame and wide-ranging transatlantic milieu, Rice came to grips with competing memorializations of the historical iconographies of slavery in the works of artists working on both sides of the Black Atlantic and including, Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson, Pat Ward Williams, Simeon Barclay, Godfried Donkor, Lubaina Himid and Ingrid Pollard. In the same session, contemporary artist, scholar, and founding member of one of the most important British art movements of the twentieth century, the BLK Art Group, Keith Piper (Middlesex University) cut to the heart of the enduring symbolism of white racist stereotypes in his paper, “Getting into Character: Encounters with ‘Tricksterism’ in Contemporary Depictions of the American Slave Plantation.” Offering a radical counterpoint to his mapping of the enduring stranglehold of white racist forces of black appropriation and annihilation in popular and fine art discourse and imagery, Piper outlined an array of black diasporic strategies of resistance. Introducing a powerful discussion of his own bodies of work, he provided a compelling discussion of his installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in which he riffed off their official displays to create an interventionist series of works titled Lost Vitrines for which the description of one work in particular betrays their incendiary content: Miss Mary's Micro-Resistance Tool Kit.

The proliferation of fine art and popular illustrations of Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the topics covered by symposium presenter David Bindman.The second session of the first day addressed “The Histories, Narratives, and Legacies of Transatlantic Slavery” and was chaired by Michèle Mendelssohn of the English faculty at the University of Oxford. Fionnghuala Sweeney (Universities of Liverpool and Dublin) delivered the first paper on the subject of “Slavery, Literature, and the Image of the African American Woman as Public Record.” Drawing on eighteenth and nineteenth-century records, she powerfully debated African American portraiture’s relationship to literary production and self-textualization.

Frederick Douglass c. 1860s. Symposium presenter Zoe Trodd discussed Frederick Douglass imagery in 20th centruy visual culture.In the second talk of the session, David Bindman (Harvard University), traced “Uncle Tom and the Problem of ‘Soft’ Resistance to Slavery,” not only by discussing the widely known proliferation of fine art and popular illustrations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also of Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp in relation to which he introduced audiences to a previously unknown contemporary illustration. Finally, Zoe Trodd (University of Nottingham) presented an array of original findings in her paper examining “The After-Image: Frederick Douglass in Twentieth-Century Black Visual Culture” and which comes out of her ongoing research for a book entitled, Picturing Frederick Douglass which she is co-editing with John Stauffer and myself (foreword Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Afterword Bill E. Lawson. Image Consultancy Sally Pierce). As Trodd compellingly argued, this book will break new ground as the first book collating all known photographs of Frederick Douglass who was not only a writer, abolitionist, philosopher, statesman, newspaper editor and art historian but a popularly reproduced photographic subject.  

Lubaina Himid's Jelly Mould Pavillions #2. Series influenced by Betye Saar.The first day closed with a groundbreaking plenary lecture titled Lost & Found at the Swop- Meet: Betye Saar and the Every-day Object held at the Modern Art Oxford Museum and delivered by contemporary artist, Lubaina Himid. Part lecture, part performance piece and part art installation, Himid’s session held the audience spell-bound by showing how the assemblage work of Betye  Saar, who during her 45 year career  has used washboards, window-frames, circuit boards and handkerchiefs, has influenced Himid recent work with dinner plates, newspapers and jelly molds in order to debate the physical and psychological realities of slavery and its legacies. During this session, Himid asked and answered a powerful question: “Can an active harnessing of the everyday through the gathering and re-using of ordinary things actually make a difference to how audiences relate to artworks about the legacy of slavery and black women’s lives?”

Lubaina Himid, Jelly Mould Pavillions, 2010.Debra Priestly (symposium presenter), Strange Fruit 2, 2001. The second day began with an inspirational plenary lecture titled, Preserves, delivered by contemporary artist, Debra Priestly, and chaired by Sally Bayley of the Faculty at the Rothermere American Institute.  As an artist who creates mixed-media objects and multimedia installations incorporating painting, drawing, digital imagery, readymades and sound, Priestly compellingly demonstrated the ways in which her work explores common rituals – including the preparation and consumption of food - and the everyday objects used in these rituals remain the inspiration and imaginative stimulus to family memories, histories and storytelling traditions. As she suggests, the canning jar in particular is a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of personal memory, ancestral knowledge and historic events.

In the third plenary session, “Art Across America: Visualizing Slavery and Memory in the United States”chaired by Fionnghuala Sweeney, Geoff Quilley (University of Sussex)  gave a talk entitled, “Siting the Circum-Atlantic: Nelson in a Bottle in Trafalgar Square,” in which he provided a profoundly nuanced examination of the problematics surrounding the memorialization of the circum-Atlantic and its histories by focusing on Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, commissioned for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square and now at Royal Museums Greenwich, UK.

In the same session, I gave a paper entitled “Tracing Spectacularized Histories, Serialized Narratives and Taboo Iconographies in Historic and Contemporary African American and Black British Portraiture” in which I mapped the tessellated relationships between black portraiture, representation and memory.

The final panel session of the symposium - “African American and Black Diasporic Visual Cultures in Comparative Perspective” – was chaired by Alan Rice and began with “Could the Master’s Tools Dismantle the Master’s House?” a paper delivered by Elvan Zabunyan (University of Rennes, France) in which she incisively examined the mixed-media installations of Theaster Gates. In the next paper, Hannah Durkin (University of Nottingham) spoke on “‘The Greatest Negro Monuments on Earth’: Richmond Barthé’s Memorials to Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines,” as she gave a wonderfully original examination of Barthé’s monumental tributes to Haitian Revolution leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines as ambivalent engagements with Haitian Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism.

Offering a radical conclusion to this session, Leon Wainwright (The Open University) delivered a paper titled, “Guyana, 1763 and 1960: Art, Memory and Modernism” in which he not only examined the life and works of Aubrey Williams but issued an intellectual call to arms regarding the ongoing need for reformulating, revising and reinterrogating extant theoretical boundaries in black diasporic visual arts.

Finally, the symposium ended with a Roundtable Discussion chaired by Nathan Grant (Saint Louis University) in which he shored up the political no less than the intellectual and aesthetic importance of the symposium by powerfully tracing the insidious visual racisms embedded within white mass-produced historical prints that continue to dominate in popular culture.

Leading scholars and artists Eddie Chambers, Sutapa Biswas and Marcus Wood were not at the symposium but will be included alongside contributions by all the speakers in a co-edited book currently being compiled by myself and Hannah Durkin and titled, Visualising Slavery and Reimaging Memory Art Across the Black Diaspora (forthcoming).

To access audio podcast files of the talks, please go to the University of Oxford website:

http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/art-across-black-diaspora-visualizing-slavery-america