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!

In-Transit/En tránsito in Santiago, Chile: Wellesley College Faculty Exhibition & Talk

Galería Macchina, Universidad Católica, Santiago, Chile. August 2014.

I’m excited to be traveling to Santiago, Chile this week to brag about my brilliant colleagues in the Department of Art, Music, and Cinema & Media Studies at Wellesley College for the opening of In-Transit/En Tránsito, organized by Chilean artist and Associate Professor of Art, Daniela Rivera. The exhibition takes place at the Galería Macchina at the School of Art at Universidad Católica from August 20 through September 23.

Participating artists include: Carlos Dorrien, Candice Ivy, Jenny Olivia Johnson, David Kelly, Nicholas Knouf, Phyllis McGibbon, Salem Mekuria, Qing Ming Meng, Andrew Mowbry, Daniela Rivera, Betsy Seder, and David Teng Olsen.

I’m also thrilled to be taking funk on the road! I’ll be speaking about my own research, “The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis & Renée Stout,” at Galería Macchina at the School of Art at Universidad Católica on Tuesday, August 20 at 6p.m. Musicologist Daniel Party will serve as moderator.

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!

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