African Art



As an introduction to the arts of Africa, this course explores the meaning and the contexts of production within a variety of religious and political systems found throughout the continent, from Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria, to name a few. We consider important topics such as the ancient art outside the Nile Valley sphere, symbols of the power of royalty, and the aesthetic and spiritual differences in masquerade traditions. We pay special attention to traditional visual representations in relation to contemporary artists and art institutions in Africa.

The Dark Room is coming…to Wellesley College on Saturday, April 11

Third Exposure SymposiumTHIRD EXPOSURE~THE DARK ROOM: RACE & VISUAL 3RD ANNUAL SYMPOSIUM on Saturday, April 11 at Wellesley College. Free and Open to the Public. See below for the full schedule.

The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Studies Seminar is an extended conversation concerning the intersection of critical race theory and visual culture studies. With over 40 members from 24 North American colleges and universities, we are a group of regional and institutional variety, made up of several different disciplines and departments and different professional ranks. We meet once a month during the academic year to consider the import of recent published works heavily invested in the interstices of visualities rendered through the lens of race and empire. Third Exposure is just that, our third foray into a collective intellectual engagement of this kind. #3rdExp

Email: | Twitter: @raceandvisual

Program Schedule

8:30      Registration    Collins Cinema

9:00     Welcome         

Nikki A. Greene, Assistant Professor of Art, Wellesley College


Andrew Shennan, Provost and Dean of the College, Wellesley College

 9:20-10:45 Black Lives Matter

 #AllHandsonDeck: Protest & Art/Work in the 21st Century

Olubukola Gbadegesin, Assistant Professor of Art History, Saint Louis University

 Eyes Without a Face: Inducing Compunction

Sandy Alexandre, Associate Professor of Literature, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

For The Record: Black Women, Police Violence, and The Politics of Image Making

Courtney Marshall, Assistant Professor of English & Women’s Studies, University of New Hampshire

Moderator: Sarah Jackson, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Northeastern University

10:45-11:00  Break for light refreshments in Collins Café

11:00-12:30  Enter the Corporeal

 Black Embodiment in 18th Century British Culture

Nicole N. Aljoe, Associate Professor of English, Northeastern University

 “Most Wonderfully Made”: The Curious Performances of Millie-Christine McKoy

Nicole Ivy, Postdoctoral Fellow Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Indiana University

Black Feminist THOT: Dance as Visual Culture

Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson, Assistant Professor of African American Studies, Brandeis University

 On the Perils of Ephemeral Performance Art

Samantha Noel, Assistant Professor of Art, Wayne State University

Moderator: Moya Bailey, Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s and Gender & Sexuality Studies & the NU Lab for Digital Humanities, Northeastern University

11:00-12:30 The Politics of Location

Fifty Years Later: Revisiting Bowdoin College’s 1964 Exhibition, The Negro in American Painting

Dana E. Byrd, Assistant Professor of Art History, Bowdoin College

“When I see this image, I see myself”: Teachers Explore Race Through Kara Walker’s Post-Katrina Adrift

Folashade Cromwell, Visiting Assistant Professor of Education, Framingham State University

Palm Trees and Billboards: Navigating the Tropics in Art and Anthropology

Lara Stein Pardo, Faculty Fellow in the Warren Center for the Humanities, Vanderbilt University

Moderator: Courtney J. Martin, Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University

 12:30-2:00         Lunch on your own

Harambee House Lunch for speakers and invited students

 2:00-3:15           Keynote Address

Coco Fusco, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MLK Visiting Scholar

Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba

Introduction: Elena Creef, Professor of Women’s and Gender’s Studies, Wellesley College

 3:15-4:15           Davis Museum Self-guided | Student Gallery Talks

4:15-4:30           Break for Light Refreshments in Collins Café

 4:30-6:00           Into the Light: Dark Room Members’ Publications

Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps (University of Illinois Press, 2015)

Charissa J. Threat, Assistant Professor of History, Spelman College

Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (SUNY Press, 2014)

Vanessa Valdés, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese. The City College of New York

 Domestic Disturbances: Re-Imagining Narratives of Gender, Labor, and Immigration (University of Texas Press, 2014)

Irene Mata, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender’s Studies, Wellesley College

South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 2015)

Marcia Chatelain, Assistant Professor of History, Georgetown University

Moderator: Kimberly Juanita Brown, Visiting Assistant Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard University

Concluding Remarks Faith Smith, Assoc. Professor of African and Afro-American Studies and English, Brandeis University

6:00-7:00           Reception in the Davis Museum Lobby

Book table with Dark Room Members’ publications.

Co-sponsored by The Eleanor Edwards Fund, Newhouse Center for the Humanities, Partnerships for Diversity and Inclusion, McNeil Program for the Study of American Art, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley Centers for Women, Writing Program, and the Office of the Advisor to Latina Students

Academic Programs: Africana Studies, American Studies, Art, Cinema & Media Studies, English, History, Peace & Justice Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies.

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.

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.”












Notes on Addis: A Look Back

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This week, I was thrilled to see Addis Ababa listed at #13 on the New York Times’ Top 52 places in the world to visit. Why? According to the headline: “An ambitious art scene heads toward the international stage.” Anyone who has been there knows this to be true. This time last year, I got to see Addis for myself. PThe Times highlights Asni Gallery, which stood only doors away from my hotel. I had a chance to meet the gracious gallery owner, Konjit Seyoum. If you’re in Addis Ababa, go to Asni. FYI: They have a small, but delicious lunch and dinner menu.

Teaching African Art at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design
Teaching African Art at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design

I was initially hesitant to leave my family for three weeks (The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Really Have it All?), but I joined my Wellesley College colleagues multi-media artist David Teng Olsen and Ethiopian native and filmmaker Salem Mekuria. Salem, really was the one responsible for bringing us both to Addis. She arranged an invitation from the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design to teach the History of the Arts of Africa.  What a joy to speak to an engaged audience of students and faculty over a series of days. It was humbling, really. I had the renown artist, Bekele Mekonnen, listening. Also, in the seats sat the young artist and Director of the Netsa Art Village, Mihret Kebebe. She was one of many fine hosts that extended her friendship during my time there and even today (thanks to Twitter and email). I’m grateful for all the memories that came swirling back this week. The food. The people. The ART. 

Upon my return, I had an opportunity to thank the Friends of the Wellesley College Library directly for the funding to donate books to the Alle School’s library in the Spring 2013 newsletter.

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 11.37.45 PMFor my posts from Ethiopia, see the following:

Notes on Addis: Arrival

Notes on Addis: Art in the Making 

Notes on Addis: Netsa Art Village

Notes on Addis: Departure

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