TONIGHT! The City Talks: Sharing Black Histories Juneteenth @ the MFA Boston

7-8pm | Remis Auditorium

Join us tonight for a discussion with Boston-area thinkers, institutions, entrepreneurs, activists, city officials, and artists. I am honored to moderate this important conversation surrounding a central question: How should cultural institutions acknowledge Black histories?

If you cannot make it to museum tonight, our panel will be recorded and live-streamed by WGBH.

Moderator: Dr. Nikki A. Greene, Assistant Professor, Art, Wellesley College (She/Her/Hers)| Instagram: @nikkigphd; Twitter: @nikkigphd

Makeeba McCreary, Patti & Jonathan Kraft Chief of Learning & Community Engagement, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (She/Her/Hers)

Makeeba McCreary assumed her role as the Patti and Jonathan Kraft Chief of Learning and Community Engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), in January 2019. This newly created Leadership Team position centers on integrating diverse perspectives into the MFA’s programs and educational offerings to foster a better understanding of current issues through the lens of art. McCreary manages staff across four departments: Education; Volunteer and Community Engagement; Lectures, Courses and Concerts; and Film. Under her guidance, these teams oversee a wide range of programs, from community celebrations and film screenings to MFA Late Nites and City Talks with local thought leaders, with the goal of sparking visitors’ curiosity and creating meaningful personal experiences through the Museum’s collection. Prior to joining the MFA, McCreary served as the Managing Director and Senior Advisor of External Affairs for Boston Public Schools, reporting directly to the Mayor and Superintendent of Schools. A native Bostonian, McCreary received her doctorate in education from the Teachers College at Columbia University, a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Destiny Polk, Founder, Radical Black Girl (She/Her/They/Divine) | Instagram: @Radicalblackgirl; Facebook: Radical Black Girl; Website:

Warrior and Healer. Tender and unbreakable. Destiny “Divine” Polk, whose name means “That which has been firmly established, God has answered, Dance”, is a an afro-indigenous, choreographer and producer, multi-disciplinary artist, community organizer/space holder, art-educator and founder of art-activist platform Radical Black Girl. Destiny’s work is concerned about speaking truth to a country that attempts to rewrite its own history while having actively tried to suppress African and Native American history and culture. Des advocates for the radical awakening of the authentic self to become audacious, unapologetic and empowered. She intentionally creates spaces to support artists of color, low-income communities of color, womxn of color and young self identifying black girls.

Jason Talbot, Co-Founder, Artists for Humanity (He/Him/His) | Instagram: @afhboston; Twitter: @afhboston

A Co-Founder and AFH alumnus, Jason leads special projects at AFH. He brings technical skills acquired through Adobe’s Youth Voices Training program and undergraduate study at the Art Institute of Boston with work experience gleaned as a graphic designer for Turner Broadcasting and Going Interactive. He participated in the 2009 Cohort of the Emerging Leaders Program, University of Massachusetts Boston; received the 2013 Mentor of the Year Award from Youth Design; and named a member of 2014’s Top 40 Under 40 by the Boston Business Journal. He is a former member of WGBH’s Community Advisory Board and current member of WGBH’s Board of Overseers.

Black Portraitures II: Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art

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To say that the Black Portraiture{s} II Conference that took place in Florence, Italy (May 28-31) was phenomenal does not quite capture the artistic and intellectual vibrancy–chemistry really–of the dynamic scholars and artists that gathered there. Such an honor to have known Dr. Deborah Willis, her artistic work and scholarship on photography for so many years. Dr. Willis is the University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She and her wonderful team of staff members from NYU, Harvard University, and other sites, executed a seamless conference experience from beginning to end.

Nikki A. Greene and Deborah Willis

Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art with Matthew D. Morrison, Kwami Coleman, and Imani Uzuri was one of my most fulfilling professional panels of my career. Moderated by jazz musician Hank Thomas, the description of our panel is as follows:

By listening to and engaging sonic histories and performances of blackness, this panel seeks to complement/complicate visual representations of blackness in Western art, as we consider how sound is articulated from, outside of, and onto (black) bodies through art, music, and performance. (Dis)Embodied acts of improvising and composing (of sound and identity), the “spirit” of sound, and the politics of (black) sound’s reception and circulation, will be themes that run throughout this panel.

Really, when you have a “spare hour,” hear us talk about our passion surrounding music. The whole panel was phenomenal (if I do say so myself). You won’t regret it. My paper “Facing the Music: Radcliffe Bailey, Sun Ra, and the African Diasporic Body” begins around minute 32. A heartfelt THANK YOU to Dr. Therí A. Pickens, who offered her take on our panel in her blog post, “Scholar Fierce: Doing Dilettante as a Scholar.” Dr. Pickens gracious remarks include:

During this panel, I felt like I learned some pretty basic stuff about jazz (how to listen), black figures in classical music, and how to read art (whether sung or materially crafted). In those moments, worlds opened up. I don’t want to overstate the case by saying that the earth moved. However, the tectonic plates of knowledge I have (which tend to move slowly) quaked and changed the terrain of my knowledge… just a bit. (Girl, thanks, for real!)

C’mon, now. THAT has to convince you to watch. For other recordings from the Black Portraiture{s} II conference, please visit the Black Portraitures website.

My next post will feature photos from BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE at Black Portraitures II.

Even if you don’t have a full hour (and twelve minutes), here is a two-minute video of Imani singing from my perspective on the stage. I had to follow Imani Uzuris singing performance, so it took me a moment to gather myself.  She’s amazing. Enjoy!

Azúcar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”

I’ve been struggling to put into words the kind of phenomenological experience I had going to see Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that no amount of preparation could actually equip you. Just being there–anxious, confined, exhilarated and unsettled–has made one of the greatest impressions on me as an art historian woman of color.

Fallen Sugar Sculpture. Kara Walker, A Subtlety. Domino Factory. Brooklyn, New York. July 5, 2014. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.

Since my visit to the Domino Factory in Brooklyn on July 5, I cannot rid myself of Celia Cruz singing out her signature refrain: “¡Azúcar!”  Her hook is not a gimmick, but rather an affirmation of her blackness. A firm recognition of the labor of many black bodies that endured the Middle Passage to the Americas to harvest crops, including sugar cane, in places like her native Cuba. The Afro-Cuban proudly asserted in one of her many classic songs, “Azúcar Negra” (written by Mario Diaz):

Soy dulce como el melao’/Alegre como el tambor/Llevo el ritmico tumbao’/Y Africa en el corazon/Hija de una isla rica/Esclava de una sonrisa/ Soy calle y soy carnaval/Calle corazón y tierra/Mi sangre es azúcar negra/Es amor y es música/ Azucar azucar negra/Cuanto me gusta y me alegra/Azucar azucar negra/Ay cuanto me gusta y me alegra

I’m sweet as molasses/Merry as the drum/I wear the rhythmic tumbao’/And Africa in the heart/Daughter of a rich island/slave of a sunrise/I am street and I am carnival/Street, heart and earth/My blood is brown sugar/It is love and music/Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / How much I love it and it makes me happy/ Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / Oh how much I love it and it makes me happy*

The excitement of the long-awaited pilgrimage to Brooklyn to one of the most tweeted/blogged/televised/talked about installation of the year subsided once I stepped inside. Once I finally reached the Creative Time‘s sign fully announcing the exhibition, I smelled the molasses-dripped walls of the Domino factory before I entered. The scent enveloped me as I looked around at the vacuous space containing throngs of people navigating the rust and licorice-colored puddles that gathered in the unexpected sloping corners and passages around the carefully-placed sculptures of brown-sugared “children” holding baskets.

Mammy in waiting I knew the “Mammy Sphinx” awaited my inspection, but I only wanted to glance at her from afar. I had to first take my cues from those children, some made of resin coated in sugar, others made of pure azúcar negra (brown sugar) who marked a path from the entrance towards the gleaming white Mammy-in-waiting. For me, they set the tone in the Domino factory. Walker wisely chose to let the conditions of space, time, and the natural elements take their due course, leaving those pure sugar babies purposely neglected, fallen, and broken. Those sculptures were best described by the sound poet, Tracie Morris, who stated at the Free University – NYC event, “Subtleties of Resistance,” held within the factory that afternoon, that the looming sculpture was “a ghost watching over all those sweet dying children.” Paraphrasing Morris, she describe how “their tiny load bearing bodies literally melting on the factory floor and in the shadows are the real story of enslaved labor, suffering, death. She watches them – gaze fixed straight ahead – protecting them, bearing witness for them.” An eery, but apt description.

A number of other elements made me trepidatious about approaching the “Sugar Mama” because it took time to acclimate to the environment: the (anti)ceremonial procession on a street in Brooklyn, the heat of the blazing sun outside, the coolness of the darkened interior, the scent (oh the stench), the reluctant dampness of melting azúcar negra, and the sticky floors coated with it audibly marking each person’s step within.

My attendance was tempered by meeting a former Domino factory worker, Mr. Robert Shelton. I’d learned about his presence as a volunteer through an article written by Leigh Raiford and Robin Hayes in The Atlantic, “Remembering the Workers of the Domino Factory.” As we approached the Sugar Mama — I can’t stop calling her that — Mr. Shelton’s availability to speak about his work within the building mediated my own conflict between the hands of the laborers who earned a living since the factory’s opening in the 1856 until its fraught closing in 2004 and the “art” and its substance in the hands of Kara Waker. Yes, his very presence made the history of the factory much more palpable, palatable, and extraordinary.

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After being there, I do understand why one would yell  (“Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,” The Indypendent, June 30, 2014). I mostly sighed in my discomfort. It’s a tough piece, and it’s even tougher watching people in inappropriate poses at the expense of the representation of the very people victimized by institutions/systems that created versions of these kinds of “sugar mamas” and their resultant destructive forces. This, despite the public protests against such postering (“‘We Are Here’: People of Color Gather at Kara Walker Show”).

Indeed, the “Sugar Mama” was formidable. She took my breath away. But, what to do with the uneasiness of having seen a black woman’s body turned into a powerful, yet vulnerable monument to the legacy of sugar? What to do about an homage to the black, female body whose site(s) of power — her monumental frame (40′ x 70′ x 90′), her kerchiefed head, her exposed vulva — put on display for close observation, critique, and praise? The respectful and powerful introspection of the “Subtleties of Resistance” really did help to contextualize the installation with the set of readings/performances staged by Free University – NYC with original sound poetry by Tracie Morris, a reading of Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 speech “What to the slave is your Fourth of July?” by Brian Jones, and Sofía Gallisá reading in Spanish of Abelardo Díaz Alfaro’s 1947 story “Bagazo.” (I wasn’t able to attend the workshop and film screening afterward. I imagine that was also immensely transformative for participants.) Being in the company of Wellesley colleagues, former students and other friends who just so happened to come through, I felt in solidarity with those who were willing to thoughtfully and courteously discuss the experience.

There are so many sentiments spoken and unspoken that must still be felt, expressed, sung, and written about. My friend and Wellesley College colleague, Dr. Elena Creef, who joined me on this journey, coined a term – “A Middle Sugar Passage.” Yes, we are travelers on a different kind of 21st century “Passage” wading through the structural failures of a post-industrial collapse of manufacturing in the United States. No, we weren’t taken against our will aboard a ship from our homeland into a foreign one, but we were made to feel like we swayed within the bowels of a vessel, with a single porthole provided in one of the walls to enhance that perception. Again, I ask, where do I — do we — go from here? …back to Celia Cruz perhaps.

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Very few pieces in recent history have done the kind of work to foster the conversations that I think this installation will engender for years to come. I’ve still got my work cut out for me. Research may answer some questions, but I may never be satisfied. That, I guess, is the brilliance of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.


BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.
BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”

* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”












From poor black kid to…Art Historian?

President Obama took a shot at Art History majors yesterday at a General Electric manufacturing plant. Obama’s comment is nothing new for us foolhardy art historians. A lawyer friend poked fun at me years ago: “Nikki, what are you going to do with a doctorate in Art History? Is someone gonna come up to you and say, ‘Ah, doctor, my painting hurts!'” I thought it was fitting to re-post my journey in Art History.

For those of you who have already read my post from fall 2011, “I was a poor black kid…”, you know that I come from pretty humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey. Perhaps the next question is: why did you become an art historian? A question I get pretty often. My mother would tell you that already at the age of five, I was fascinated by everything connected with museums–cold marble floors, dazzling framed color, curious-faced visitors, the hushed atmosphere. She said that I was as contented and stimulated there as other children might be at Disney World (truth be told, I’m not a fan of Disney). My passion for art history initially stemmed from my love for and appreciation of museums, specifically The Newark Museum (what a great education program they have there!). Then, at 15, I left Newark and Connecticut for Barcelona (pronounced Bar-THAY-lona). I took my first art history course there in Spanish. It was a real trip to discuss Picasso, and then walk down Las Ramblas to get to the Picasso Museum. My bus route home to my Spanish host family literally went past Gaudí’s La Casa Batlló and La Casa Mila! How could that not have an impact?

As a Smithsonian High School Intern, I had wonderful opportunities to expand my understanding of the world beyond the arts, including meeting Rep. John Lewis (GA) along with my fellow teenage interns (now, on the left, Judge Asha Jackson from Georgia and Principal Shawna Becenti from New Mexico). Summer 1993.
As a Smithsonian High School Intern, I had wonderful opportunities to expand my understanding of the world beyond the arts, including meeting Rep. John Lewis (GA) along with my fellow teenage interns (now, on the left, Judge Asha Jackson from Georgia and Principal Shawna Becenti from New Mexico). Summer 1993.

I was awarded the National High School Internship at the Smithsonian Institution in the African American Studies Center the summer before starting college. I got to see the inner workings of the Smithsonian, and I knew then that I wanted to major in Art History. Oddly enough, the women that I worked with there warned me not to pursue a career in the arts (low pay, not enough jobs, etc.). So what did I do? I became a double major in Spanish Lit and Psychology at Wesleyan University. After a year and half of taking art history classes, I didn’t listen to those women anymore. I had the wonderful opportunity to work as an intern for the Amistad Center and the African American Art Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. For two consecutive summers, I was in direct contact with the 6,000 piece collection of art, photographs, and artifacts that enabled me to study African American works within the larger frame of American art history (I’ll leave out the part where I worked at Burger King on the weekends to scrounge up money for the upcoming academic year. Talk about socio-cultural-economic shifts!).

What happened next? The abridged version: From Wesleyan to the University of Delaware (MA, Ph.D.) to adjunct teaching purgatory in the Philadelphia area to a Mellon Postdoc at Wellesley College to Assistant Professor at Wellesley College! Despite President Obama’s opinion that more money could potentially be made with a skill in manufacturing, I’m proud of my three Art History degrees. I’ve traveled internationally learning and teaching about art (Ethiopia, Canada, Cuba, and England, for example). I wouldn’t trade my life as an art historian for any other “trade” in the world. I’m not the richest woman, but I’m not doing too badly for a poor black kid!

Washington Post: “We know what President Obama thinks of art history majors. But what do they think of him?

(See About Nikki G for my current musings and brief cv)

The FUNK is coming…

FUNK leads folks to my website more than any other search term–not Art History, not family, not anything else! The truth of the matter is that I haven’t even written much here on it because I haven’t wanted to give away too many of my pearls (tiny pearls, but pearls) of wisdom too soon. Thanks to Dr. Tony Bolden, editor of The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture, my essay “The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis and Renée Stout” will be published this fall in the American Studies Journal in a special funk issue, edited by Bolden. A few of the contributors, including me, will be presenting at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Washington, DC on Saturday, November 23 on the panel, “Groove Thang: Funk, Feminism, and Afro Beat.” I’m bringing fine art to the table, but music will be at the center of our discussions. I. Cannot. Wait.


Here is a description of our panel:

This panel, sponsored by AMSJ, seeks to address a lacuna in American music criticism. Funk music was popular between the late 1960s and early 1980s, and has been crucial to the aesthetics of hip hop and afrobeat. But despite influencing two global forms, funk has been largely ignored by scholars of American culture. The critical invisibility of funk is especially curious because the funk music epitomizes collective dissent…In his paper “Funky Drummer: Fela Kuti, James Brown, and the Invention of Afrobeat,” musicologist Alex Stewart examines the manner in which Nigerian band leader Kuti reconfigured Brown’s rhythmic patterns, modal jazz, and black nationalist politics to fashion a postcolonial aesthetic that became known as afrobeat. Key to Stewart’s concern is how Kuti synthesized elements of funk and soul to construct, albeit ironically, a form that express uniquely Pan-African ethos. Art historian Nikki Greene presents a layered discussion in which she reads feminist visual artist Renée Stout’s rewriting of feminist funk diva Betty Davis’s music. Greene argues that Davis and Stout exhibit black feminist ambitions, deliberately or not, and that both artists demonstrate in music and art, respectively, what Greene calls a “feminist funk power,” which she defines as an expressive capacity to compel viewers to rethink and reinvent conceptualizations of black female agency. Finally, Tony Bolden completes the panel by framing funk music as a locus of black vernacular epistemology. Combining research and/or methodologies from literary criticism, dance, and musicology, Bolden examines the role of the body in relation to what he calls the funk principle—the interplay between motion and emotion. He argues that this dynamism constitutes a psychosomatic method of formulating and expressing musical ideas, and demonstrates that this unique epistemological modality is essential to the music-making process in funk.

For more on Renée Stout, see her website: If you want to get your hands on an LP (yes, an actual record), go to Light in the Attic Records. In 2007, the label reissued Davis’ previous three albums and a previously unreleased album (CD’s and mp3s are also available). Check out this video with the 1975 song, F.U.N.K. It aptly pays homage to the best funk rockers of all time.

First Exposure Symposium at Northeastern University, Friday, April 26, 2013


I am very excited about presenting another installment on my ruminations on FUNK at the inaugural symposium of First Exposure, the culmination of a full academic year of reading, meeting, and discussing scholarship in The Dark Room: A Faculty Seminar on Race and Visual Culture, primarily convened at Northeastern University through the rigorous efforts of Assistant Professor of English, Kimberly Juanita Brown. My paper is titled, “Personifying Funk: Lessons Learned from Adrian Piper and Renée Stout,” wherein I will discuss how both artists embodied funk, physically and philosophically in such a way as to resist the limitations of the “triple negation of colored women artists.” I will consider Piper’s Funk Lessons and Renée Stout’s Fetish #2 and her personas, in particular.

There are so many brilliant topics by scholars from across the country with keynote addresses by María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Saidiya Hartman. This symposium will be invigorating and enlightening, touching on a variety of disciplines, including Art History, Anthropology, History, Literature, Women & Gender Studies, and so much more. Come if you can, but do rsvp!


“A Generous Medium”: Worth More Than a Thousand Words

Photo: Nikki A. Greene

A Generous Medium: Photography at Wellesley 1972-2012 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College will enthrall photography enthusiasts, collectors, scholars, and curators alike. As a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, admittedly, I am biased. For me, the most exciting part of the exhibition as a contributing writer included the excitement of seeing all the other photographs together on display. The curators arranged the works, quasi-19th century salon-style, by order of accession date, which provides a chronology of tastes of sorts. Those tastes were shaped by the Davis Museum–the donors, the museum directors, or past and present faculty members available to offer expertise–at any given moment over the last four decades. I wrote on two photographs included in the show: Ellen Gallagher’s Abu Simbel (2005-06) and Radcliffe Bailey’s Echo (2011). Both images were acquired by the Davis Museum in 2011 under the leadership of the Davis’ current director, the Ruth Gordon Shapiro ’37 DirectorLisa Fischman.

A Generous Medium: Photography at Wellesley 1972-2012 – view from ground floor balcony. Photograph: Nikki A. Greene

You see, we weren’t assigned the works. Each of the 60 writers, which included alumnae, donors, museum directors, past and present faculty members, chose one or multiple photographs about which to write critically or to reflect thoughtfully. Subject matter, style, and technique vary, of course. Thus, the exhibition reflects not only the importance of photography in the Davis Museum over the last forty years, but also the personal thoughts, professional tastes, and research interests of the contributors. Portions of their texts hang alongside each photograph. In fact, the interplay of text with the images become the most integral and fascinating experience of the show. I hope as many visitors as possible drop in to see this innovative show. Eugène Atget, Andy Warhol, Dawoud Bey, and Cindy Sherman, among many notable others, reside in the same room. THAT should be motivation enough to get to the Davis by December 16. Truly, with so much to see–and read–one would be hard pressed to find a comparable photography show as visually and intellectually stimulating. Here’s the most recent review from the Boston Globe (9/24/12): “The Davis Showcases 40 Years of Photography.”

At the very least, you’ll want to see my pick, Gallagher’s Abu Simbel and her version of funk masters Sun Ra and George Clinton awaiting a blue, fur-lined spaceship. Funky indeed!

Ellen Gallagher, “Abu Simbel” (2005-06) ~ acquired in 2011

Outline of Radcliffe Bailey’s “Echo” as part of “A Generous Medium” in lieu of the permanently installed piece on the second floor. Photo: Nikki A. Greene

My daughter examining Bailey’s “Echo” on the second floor of the Davis…intensely (March 2011). Photo: Nikki A. Greene

Artist & Art Historian Margaret Rose Vendreyes and the imitable Lorraine O’Grady on opening night of “A Generous Medium.” Margaret wrote for show and Ms. O’Grady (Wellesley alumna) has a piece in the show. Photo: Nikki A. Greene

O’Grady (in center w/blue boots) addresses students after returning to campus on November 13, commemorating her donation of her archives to Wellesley College.


Belonging in Cuba

Occasionally, reality exceeds your wildest dreams. Two days ago, I returned from a fantastic–dare I say, fantastical–trip to Havana, Cuba. I felt at home in a way I that I have never felt in Europe. The knowing glances from a dark-skinned cubana to even the catcalls as if I were just another guapa from Vedado. The people of Havana offered a mirror of myself reflected visually in skin tone, coarse hair, and swaying hips. The generous spirit and determined resilience of their characters also provided familiar comfort. The question arose quite frequently, “¿Eres cubana no?” My reply, “No, pero gracias!” I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the recognition that I somehow belonged there. I’ve experienced part of the African diaspora in a language that I could speak linguistically, and more importantly, spiritually.

Salem Mekuria and I at the studio of Esterio Segura in Havana. Photo: Nikki A. Greene

The 11th Havana Biennial was, of course, tremendously exhilirating. I’ll offer my thoughts on some of the artwork, and I will recount many stories in the days and weeks to come of exhibitions, artist studio visits, and performances. For now, I just want to begin to offer my thanks.

I am deeply indebted to Maria Magdelena Campos-Pons for her initial invitation and for the unprecedented access that we had to artists and venues that would have been simply unreachable without her. I want to also thank Salem Mekuria for the final nudge to go to Cuba and our burgeoning sisterhood. I loved every moment spent with Salem and our other companions Lena and Liz. We have memories for a lifetime.

Finally, gracias a la Habana por tenerme.

Hasta la próxima vez…

For more on Esterio Segura at the 11th Havana Biennial.

I’m already dreaming in Cuban…

I am going to Cuba to attend the 11th Havana Biennial (o mejor dicho, La Ocena Bienal de la Habana 2012). Frankly, it’s been a dream of mine to travel to Cuba since I learned how to speak Spanish twenty years ago in Barcelona, Spain.

Campos-Pons performing "Los caminos son largos" on Jan. 25, 2012 in Havana
Campos-Pons performing “Los caminos son largos,” in Havana on Jan. 25, 2012 

Going to Cuba has always had less to do with Spain, and more to do with using the language in a context that was closer to home, culturally speaking. I double majored in Spanish Lit and Art History at Wesleyan. I figured that I could combine my seemingly disparate passions for the Spanish language and the myriad cultures of the African diaspora with art. I found that I could do so most poignantly by studying Cuba. I’d read novels like Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. I dabbled in the study of the visual manifestations of African culture in Santeria, focusing primarily on the orisha, Changó, and his Catholic correlation of Santa Barbara. Eventually, however, I pursued African American art history, studying Harlem Renaissance artist, Aaron Douglas instead. Cuba has remained on my mind ever since. 

So, how is that I am going to Cuba with only 2-1/2 weeks notice? First, I sat next to Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons at the dinner reception for Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibition opening at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in February of this year. She had just returned from her inaugural performance at the Casa de las Americas for the exhibition, 1475  MB in Havana. Campos-Pons is an internationally-recognized visual artist, and she teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  She often uses performance and photography to highlight the roots of African culture, the resultant racism, and the role of women, not only within the context of Afro-Cuba, but also in the United States, and the entire African Diaspora.  She embodies exactly what I attempt to critically examine and articulate in writing. She encouraged me at that dinner to think about going to Cuba for the biennial this May.

Then, I got the final push last week when my colleague, Salem Merkuria, a filmmaker and Wellesley prof in the Art and Women & Gender Studies departments, outright insisted, “Come to Cuba!” Thanks to the Obama administration’s change in Cuban travel policy, as an educator, I was able to secure a plane ticket and a visa within days through an accredited travel agency–not weeks or months. On May 13th, I land in Havana.

Of course, I am aware that I have “dreamy,” romantic notions of the island. Notwithstanding, I am eager to take in the mestizaje of Spanish and African cultures in this Caribbean context through the food, music, dance, and, of course, visual culture and fine art. I recognize that I must stay attuned to the reality of Cuba for those who live there, and the many others who no longer do (or who have never lived there), but still call it home. I plan to see Cuba, in part, through the eyes of the 114 invited artists from 45 different countries included in this year’s biennial (that’s what I do for a living!), paying particular attention to the Cuban artists, like Antonio Gomez Margolles, Alexis Leiva Machado, Carlos Garaicao, Esterio Segura, Los Carpinteros, among many others.

My week in Cuba is going to change something within me. I will strive to find the write words to express the transformation. In the meantime, I nervously await this excursion, knowing that soon I must no longer dream in Cuban, but rather be.

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