The Dark Room: Race and Gender in the Visual Archive
Wednesday, February 11th: 5:30 – 7:30 PM
Location: The Moore Room, Building 6 Room 321
In the intellectual tributary that is critical race theory, all is connected. Whether the task is elucidating the gendered trajectory of imperialism and violence in the United States, examining indigenous art forms in Latin America, or probing the interstices of Caribbean cultural production in the 20th century, critical race theorists have always engaged the world of the visual. Bringing together scholars invested in the work of critical race studies as visual culture offers a unique vantage point through which to imagine the future of visual culture studies. The Dark Room is an interdisciplinary working group of scholars interested in theories of visuality and theories of racial formation. In this roundtable each feminist scholar will select an image and interpret it in relation to its archive.
President Obama took a shot at Art History majorsyesterday 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?
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!
I miss those quiet summer days that made for a great time to experiment in writing.
I had a professor remark that my writing was “collagistic” in a way that mirrored the topic that I was exploring: Romare Bearden’s collages and photomontages. Wish I could say that this approach was always deliberate. Bearden was deliberate (See From Process to Print: Graphic Works By Romare Bearden). However, I’m learning to embrace this writing style which wanders between creative inventiveness and distracted chaos. I obsessively cut and paste my Word documents on the computer screen. I splice from within the document and from previously written notes, and I paste those iterations together with new thoughts and inquiries. This past summer I tried something new. I built a physical collage of an article-in-process on Bearden. One of my arguments has to do with the physicality of collage methods–cutting, pasting, arranging, and rearranging–in order to come up with a visually distinctive and multi-layered work. Bearden said this about his process of building collages:
I build my faces, for example, from parts of African masks, animal eyes, marbles, [and] mossy vegetation. . . I then have my small original works enlarged so the mosaic like jointings will not be so apparent, after which I finish the larger painting. I have found when some detail, such as a hand or eye, is taken out of its original context and is fractured and integrated into a different space and form configuration it acquires a plastic quality it did not have in the photograph.
I wrestled for two weeks to finalize the article. I implemented a much more measured collage-like form at the process stage than ever before. I literally kneeled on the floor of my office, then in the serene space of the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College in the final weeks of my Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Art and Africana Studies. I accomplished a lot just in seeing my article before me. Visually tracking one argument to the next was useful. I actually went into a hypnotic zone of organizing–no music, no chair, no human interaction–except when I was home. My six-year-old walked in to see all of my papers on the floor (ah, work-life balance). She asked, “Mommy, what are you doing?” I wasn’t always sure, but I wanted something magical to happen with my writing, or, at the very least, something coherent.
Staring out of my window at the Newhouse Center helped at times.
Slowing making sense of it all…
Page by page…
Lots of eye rubbing, head scratching, and other gestures of bewilderment
I haven’t submitted my article yet. It’s still not ready. I need to cut-and-paste my way towards something inspiring in my new digs in the Jewett Art Center. Pass me the scissors!
My new digs in the Jewett Art Center.
 Romare Bearden as quoted in Michael Gibson, International Herald Tribune. Letter from Bearden dated June 15, 1975 [copy], Bearden Papers, AAA; Schwartzman, p. 216, 310, n21.