A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States

By Thompson, Krista | Art Journal, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States


Thompson, Krista, Art Journal


An early draft of this paper formed the introduction to a panel I cochaired, with Jacqueline Francis, "African Diaspora Art History: State of the Field," at the College Art Association's annual conference in 2010. Thanks to Jacqueline, Huey Copeland, Pamela Franco. Harvey Neptune, and the anonymous Art journal reviewer for their invaluable insights on the paper and perspectives on the field.

The epigraphs are from Michele Wallace, "Modernism. Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture" (1990). In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 40; and Hannah Crafts. The Bondwoman's Narrative, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1853-61; New York: Warner Books, 2003). 14.

How OBC is seen (as black) and therefore, whai one sees (in a while world) is always already crucial to one's existence as an ,Afro-American.

- Michele Wallace

[N]o one could prevent us making good use of our eyes.

- Hannah Crafts

In 80 percent of the job advertisements published by the College Art Association over the last twenty years in which the words "African diaspora" appear, they are accompanied by "and/or": "African diaspora and/or African art history" and, in rarer instances, "African diaspora and/or African American and/or Latin American art history." ' While the lattei siring of fields warrants critical analysis, I want to concentrate on the former, more common job description. What can we make of the frequent conjoining of Africa and the African diaspora? Would such a geographic breadth and unspecified temporal span be imaginable in other contexts, i.e., "art history of Europe and/or the study of art of people of European descent throughout the globe"? Or do the distinct historical circumstances through which the modern African diaspora came to be formed, those of transatlantic slavery, make that conjunction a necessary and even a political one?That being said, how do we understand the "or" in such job descriptions, diat small but resounding indicator not of connection but of substitution, which suggests that the study of the African diaspora can take the place of the study of African art or that art from die continent can conversely overshadow, occlude, or preclude, the diaspora? What does such exchangeability tell us about understandings or misconceptions of African diaspora art- historical studies and their place or their lack of standing within the discipline of art history?

This institutional configuration of the African diaspora in art history job announcements serves as a point of departure in this essay, which sets out to assess historiographically what it means to study art history from the perspective of the African diaspora. I look primarily at African diaspora art history in the United States, where the area of study first developed and continues to dominate characterizations of African diaspora artistic and art-historical practice, even though I am attentive to how concepts, research, and scholars from other parts of the African diaspora have transformed this scholarship. The essay offers an overview of how me field has been interpolated in both art history and African diaspora studies. ?

I start with an examination of the methodological centrality of art history in early African diasporic scholarship. Associated with the anthropologist Melville Herskovits and carried forth in the work of the art historian Robert Harris Thompson, this strain of African diaspora scholarship sought to trace an African presence in me Americas by analyzing its material and visible remains. After the publication of Thompson's Flush of the Spirit in 1983, the discipline of art history proved intrinsic to what has been described as the "rebirth of African diaspora studies" in the academy.* I go on to explore die réorientation of African diaspora scholarship that took place after the publication of the sociologist Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic (1993), which focused on the constitutive, even precursory, role of the African diaspora within the formation of Western modernity. …

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