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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: