Friday, August 18, 2017

Dana Schutz, Damien Hirst, and the Matter of Cultural Appropriation

Just more than a week ago scores of members of the National Academy of Art published a widely-circulated letter in defense of the artist Dana Schutz whose recently-opened ten-year retrospective exhibition at the ICA Boston has drawn protests from local artists. This comes in the wake of the furor caused by her painting, Open Casket, shown at New York’s Whitney Biennial in the spring. The Boston protests have everything to do with that controversial painting. 

Having followed the debates for months, there seems to be a consensus in the world of elite culture—echoed by Kenan Malik, Adam Shatz, and now the academicians—to the effect that radical objections by non-white critics and activists to art usually by white artists that they feel does symbolic violence to their history and experience amount to censorship and nasty essentialism.
Critics of Schutz have a point, and that too must be defended. To be clear, charges of cultural appropriation are not always defensible, as the one against British artist Damien Hirst shows.
Schutz’s Open Casket is a painting depicting the mutilated body of Emmett Till whose racially-motivated murder in 1955 is considered a key moment in the rise of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. And at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana museums in Venice, Hirst included a golden head said to be from the ancient kingdom of Ife (in today’s Nigeria) in his faux-archaeological Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable installation. Both were accused of cultural appropriation.

But what is cultural appropriation? No point trying to define it; when philosophers can’t agree on the meaning of the term, what chance do I, an artist and art historian, have? But here is how I understand it. Cultural appropriation happens when someone in a position of power or privilege tells the story of someone less privileged, or uses symbols or takes ideas held dear by the latter in a way that is unsympathetic, disrespectful, pejorative, hurtful.

Cultural appropriation is about relations of unequal power. If two people of same status take from each other, it might be called exchange; if the weaker or underprivileged takes from the more powerful, it is usually seen as mimicry, a sign of one’s inferiority, inauthenticity and insufficiency. Picasso became an art star by putting masks designed by supposedly unsophisticated African sculptors on the faces of the naked women in his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. That is cultural appropriation. When African American artists of the 1960s joined their white Abstract Expressionist counterparts and made non-objective paintings and sculptures, white critics saw this as lack of originality in black art. Cultural appropriation is what people with real power do.

The clamor against Hirst began with an Instagram post by Victor Ehikhamenor, one of the artists represented in the inaugural Nigerian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. According to him the inclusion of a golden head made in the style of 12—14th century Ife brass heads in Hirst’s installation could cause future Nigerians to not recognize the brass head as part of their artistic heritage. Other critics recalled that Hirst was not the first to deny the Yoruba people the achievement of their Ife ancestors. The German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, the first European to see these stunning, highly naturalistic, brass and terracotta sculptures, around 1906, claimed they had to be the work of some ancient Greek sculptor from the lost city of Atlantis. Frobenius’ theory—based on the assumption that “primitive” black Africans could not have made the fine sculptures—was soon recognized for its racist motivation and discredited. Hirst’s exhibition guide, in fact, recounted this story.

Mr. Hirst set out to create an extraordinary collection of treasures from the wreck of an imaginary ship loaded with artistic and material treasures from the world over. A kind of bombastic and kitschy Noah’s Ark of collectibles. The Ife head was one among scores of objects found in the ship wreck. Had he not included any object from Africa (there were Pharaonic Egyptian stuff as well), you bet he would have been found guilty of ignoring African contribution to human civilization and cultural heritage. The charge against Mr. Hirst results from the misuse of the cultural appropriation sledge hammer.

The furor caused by Schutz is of a different order. Her depiction of Emmet Till’s mangled face in her humongous painting based on an archival black and white photograph pricked a festering wound in America’s racial unconscious.

Voices mostly black and from outside the art world establishment have criticized what they saw as Schutz’s insensitive and opportunistic appropriation of an image that represents one of the worst moments in America’s history of racial terror and injustice. Among them, were Parker Bright who used his own body to block the painting from viewers, and Hannah Black who collected signatures calling for the painting to be withdrawn and burned. Ms. Black and her supporters were compared to Islamic fundamentalists who wield the deadly weapon of the fatwa. They, we are told, were driven by tiresome racial victimology and, worse, reverse racism.

But here is my take.

First, there is nothing in Open Casket that made the artist’s intention legible. And for a politically and racially charged symbol that Till’s dead body became, there is no room for equivocation, especially in an American society still haunted by the deep and enduring legacies of slavery and racism. It matters that the artist, with the natural privilege that comes with racial whiteness, is known as a painter of odd and grotesque stuff, and not for using her work to address in any meaningful way inequality or social justice. The artist and her supporters may invoke and defend her artistic license; but they ought to have been ready for the robust outrage of their critics.

Second, we have been here before. In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition, with very little input or representation of black artists and voices that made 20th-century and civil rights era Harlem art and culture tick. Picketing against the show by crowds from Harlem and beyond shamed the museum’s attempt to appropriate Harlem’s history in the service of the institution’s particular vision of black America. Ms. Black’s online signature drive is virtual street protest. Like the Met then, the Whitney organized a speaking gig to address the Open Casket protests, and moved on. Unruffled.

Third, Ms. Black and her supporters have every right to deploy their collective voice to call out what at best is a careless appropriation of Till’s image. They must be seen as new-age practitioners in that core principle of the democratic society, free speech. If the Fang sculptors in the Congo whose work Picasso and his peers in imperial France copied had a voice, you bet they would have declaimed the French appropriators. Just as their Yoruba peers in Nigeria would have Frobenius!

Moreover, when the early 20th-century European Dada and Surrealist avant-garde (with no real coercive political powers of their own) expressed their outrage at modernity’s hegemonic system, and called for the destruction of its institutions and symbols. They became heroes of modern art.
Now, some young, mostly, black artists, in a reprise of that avant-garde rhetorical legacy, protest against a powerful museum and its white, very privileged artist who turned Emmet Till’s body into her usual grotesquerie. They are seen as vandals threatening the art system.

The passionate and vehement declamation of Mr. Hirst for the Ife head was on the other hand misplaced and shows the danger of invoking cultural appropriation every time a white artist—even one that is frequently controversial like Hirst—engages with art and ideas from the non-white world.

The Schutz controversy reminds me of an Igbo aphorism: you don’t step on someone’s foot and not expect him to cry out. As for that of Hirst, the idiom about crying wolf will suffice. 

*Originally published in Huffington Post

"Tradition and Postcolonial Modernism in the Work of Obiora Udechukwu"

Obiora Udechukwu, Alhaja, 1978, ink and wash on paper, Collection Iwalewahaus, Bayreuth © Obiora Udechukwu.

I recently published an essay on the work of Nigerian artist Obiora Udechukwu, the subject of my last book, Obiora Udechukwu: Line, Image, Text (Skira, 2016), in the Australian contemporary art journal, ArtLink. If you want to read it and have the time, check it out here:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

University of Chicago seeks Tenure Track Assistant Professor in Black Atlantic Art & Architecture

Position Description: 
The Department of Art History at the University of Chicago seeks (an) art or architectural
historian(s) of the Black Atlantic, specializing in any pertinent historical period and in any territory of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, North America, Iberia, and/or the more ramified Atlantic world. We are also interested in art or architectural historians working more broadly on race, (post)colonialism, and visual culture in the Atlantic world. The ability to work across fields and subfields is highly desirable, as we expect the successful candidate to collaborate with faculty within and beyond our department.

The Department of Art History values diversity. A goal of the search is to increase the diversity
of the faculty in the Department of Art History and across the Humanities Division, and we
therefore welcome applicants from groups historically underrepresented in academia, such as
black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian or Alaskan Native.
Successful candidates will be appointed either as a tenure-track Assistant Professor, or as a
Provost Fellow at the rank of Instructor with an initial two-year faculty appointment. This
initial period is intended to serve in lieu of a postdoctoral appointment. Provost Fellows will
teach one class/year, receive research support, and participate in programming designed to
help support them in their transition to Assistant Professor. Provost Fellows will ordinarily be
promoted to Assistant Professor at the end of their 2-year term. Candidates for Provost Fellow
appointment must have no more than two years of postdoctoral experience. All candidates
must have the Ph.D. in hand by the start of the appointment, 1 July 2018.

Complete application materials include cover letter (including discussion of research and
teaching interests), CV, two scholarly writing samples, names and contact information for
three professional references, and a statement describing the applicant's prior and potential
contributions to diversity in the context of academic research, teaching, and service.
Applicants should send all materials in electronic format (MS Word or PDF) to Caroline
Altekruse at caltekruse@uchicago.edu with subject heading "Black Atlantic Art and
Architecture Search." In addition, applicants must upload the CV and cover letter to the
Academic Career Opportunities website at http://tinyurl.com/ya6e3sek. No applications
received after 20 September 2017 will be accepted. University positions are contingent upon
budgetary approval.

Additional Information or Requirements:
Statement: The University of Chicago is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity/Disabled/Veterans
Employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual
orientation, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, age, status as an individual with a
disability, protected veteran status, genetic information, or other protected classes under the
law. For additional information please see the University's Notice of Nondiscrimination
at http://www.uchicago.edu/about/non_discrimination_statement/. Job seekers in need of a
reasonable accommodation to complete the application process should call 773-702-0287
or email ACOppAdministrator@uchicago.edu with their request.

Required Applicant Documents: Cover Letter
Curriculum Vitae
Optional Applicant Documents:
Other documents to attach:
Posting Link: http://tinyurl.com/ya6e3sek

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Tenure-Track Art History position in African American Art at Stanford

Assistant Professor in African American Art
Stanford University

The Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University invites
applications for the position of assistant professor, tenure-track, in
African American art history. The appointment is expected to begin on
September 1, 2018. Recent recipients of the Ph.D. and candidates who will
have received their Ph.D. by the time of appointment are invited to apply.
Teaching experience at the university level and a record of scholarly
publication are highly desirable.

We solicit applications from candidates who study African American art in
historical and/or contemporary perspective. Candidates who explore this art
in a diasporic and/or hemispheric context are also encouraged to apply. The
successful candidate will be expected to develop an introductory level
survey and more focused courses for undergraduates, as well as seminars for
graduate students and advanced undergraduates. The ideal candidate would
bring to Stanford a program of current and future research that is poised
to transform the field as well as to attract graduate students of the
highest caliber. The successful candidate will be affiliated with
Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies for Race and Ethnicity and teach
courses cross-listed with that Center, known as CCSRE. The successful
candidate's connection to CCSRE will also include, but is not limited to,
serving on committees and involvement in various intellectual and related
activities that promote the center's goals.

Interested candidates should post a letter detailing the direction of
current research and teaching objectives, a CV, a writing sample, and three
letters of recommendation online at
https://academicjobsonline.org/ajo/jobs/9441.  No hard copy applications
will be accepted. The deadline for receiving applications is October 1,
2017.

Stanford University is an equal opportunity employer and is committed to
increasing the diversity of its faculty. It welcomes nominations of, and
applications from, women, members of minority groups, protected veterans
and individuals with disabilities, as well as others who would bring
additional dimensions to the university's research, teaching and clinical
missions.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Nigeria: Corruption, Inc.

If you ever wonder why even the most ardent Nigeriaphilic voices have all but given up on that peculiar construction; why its foundation, cemented onto a bedrock of festering, gooey petroleum, could never support the boneless structure of a pretend-nation, just take a look at this one episode of the shameful--sorrily, not particularly unique--story of official corruption in Nigeria.

The sad thing is not just that for years, these individuals whose dirty hands ravaged that country's commonwealth in an orgy of avarice, were not only protected by the Nigerian civilian government but that they enjoyed the company of the high and mighty in Europe and America. So, now the US government is going to seize these properties bought with monies that belonged to the Nigerian people? Funds that could no doubt build major infrastructure so badly needed by a distressed and impoverished citizenry? Here's my proposal, Mr. US Law. After you have, I hope, successfully prosecuted these criminals and deducted the monies you spent in the courts of law, could you please send the balance to someone (governmental or not) who could spend it on something that will benefit the Nigerian people?

Read the Quartz Africa story of Nigerian ex-Oil Minister Mrs. Alison Diezani-Madueke, and "businessmen" Kola Aluko and Jide Omokore. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

INTERNATIONAL FELLOWSHIP PROGRAMME AT THE TATE MODERN


BROOKS INTERNATIONAL FELLOWSHIP PROGRAMME – OPEN CALL

Tate, in collaboration with Delfina Foundation<http://delfinafoundation.com/programmes/residency-programme/collaborations/brooks-international-fellowship-programme-with-tate/>, invites applications for the Brooks International Fellowship Programme 2018. Now in its fourth year, the programme will enable three curators, researchers, art historians or other museum professionals to work with Tate colleagues in London for three months commencing January 2018, complemented by activities at Delfina Foundation.

During this period, the Fellows will be part of a Tate team, actively participating in gallery projects and discussions, with special access to the collection, programme, archive, staff and wider networks.

The Fellows will reside at Delfina Foundation, where they will contribute to the public programme by presenting their research at Tate to a range of audiences.

These fully funded opportunities are made possible by the generous support of the Rory and Elizabeth Brooks Foundation.

Three fellowships are available in 2018. For further information about individual Fellowship opportunities and to apply please refer to the attached document or visit Brooks International Fellowships<https://workingat.tate.org.uk/pages/job_search_view.aspx?jobId=2804&JobIndex=1&categoryList=&workingPatternList=&locations=&group=&keywords=&PageIndex=1&Number=19>


Tate Modern  |  Bankside  |  London  |  SE1 9TG  |  United Kingdom

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Workshop for Emerging Africanist Scholars based on the Continent

African Studies Review Pipeline for Emerging African Scholars Workshop
In Collaboration with the African Studies Association of Africa
October 11, 2017
University of Ghana, Legon, Accra, Ghana

The African Studies Review (ASR) convenes Pipeline for Emerging African Scholars (PEAS) Workshops, in collaboration with the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA http://www.as-aa.org), to stimulate, solicit, and further develop high-quality journal submissions from Africa-based scholars under the close mentorship of senior Africanists from the continent and beyond. In collaboration with the ASAA the ASR will sponsor a PEAS workshop at the University of Ghana, Legon, on October 11, 2017. Scholars who wish to submit a proposal are, ideally, post-doctoral researchers, newly minted PhDs with works-in-progress currently underway, and soon-to-submit Ph.D. students. Emerging scholars will have an opportunity to work closely with senior scholars to re-work a pre-circulated draft article.

Preliminary List of Scholar Mentors:
Wale Adebanwi, Oxford University (TBC)
Jean Allman, Washington University in St Louis
Akosua Adomako Ampofo, University of Legon
Brenda Chalfin, University of Florida (TBC)
Akosua Darkwah, University of Legon
Wangui wa Goro, African Development Bank, Abidjan (TBC)
Walter Hawthorne, Michigan State University (TBC)
Benjamin N. Lawrance, African Studies Review Editor-in-Chief
Patricia Makepe, University of Botswana
Insa Nolte, University of Birmingham (TBC)
Naaborko Sacheyfio, Dartmouth College

The broader goals of PEAS are:
  1. To increase submissions from emerging Africa-based scholars to top-rated journals, especially ASR;
  2. To improve the quality of submissions from emerging Africa-based scholars;
  3. To increase the R&R (revise and resubmission) rate from emerging Africa-based scholars;
  4. To improve access to the ASR for emerging Africa-based scholars; and,
  5. To increase participation of emerging Africa-based scholars in the review process.

Eligibility & Application Criteria:
  1. Applications may be submitted in English, French, or Portuguese BY JULY 31, 2017;
  2. All applicants shall be members of ASAA [http://www.as-aa.org/index.php/membership] and shall submit an abstract for the ASAA 2017 annual conference to be held at the University of Ghana, Legon [see http://www.as-aa.org/index.php/asaa-2017-conference/call-for-papers-posters-and-panels in English, French, and Portuguese];
  3. Ph.D. student applicants shall be in the second year of their program or higher;
  4. Early career applicants shall have completed their Ph.D. within the past five years; and,
  5. Priority shall be given to applicants from under-resourced institutions; women are particularly encouraged to apply.

Submission Process:
Applicants for a PEAS workshop must prepare the following BY JULY 31, 2017:
  1. A cover letter that outlines the applicant’s broad academic goals and interests, and gives an express commitment to revise and submit the material of the workshop to the ASR for peer-review and possible publication;
  2. A current curriculum vitae listing all educational qualifications, research funding received, pending applications, publications, and employment history;
  3. A polished draft article of between 5000-10,000 words, with complete citations;
  4. One letter of recommendation from an individual familiar with the applicant, addressed to the ASR’s Editor-in-Chief, Benjamin N. Lawrance, that includes, but is not limited to (a) confirmation that the recommender has read either the submission or previous work by the applicant; (b) an evaluation of the draft work; (c) confirmation that the recommender considers the work well enough developed to be on the path to submission to a journal; and (d) confirmation of the academic standing and progress of the applicant as represented in the accompanying CV;
  5. Either, evidence of status as a Ph.D. student, including year in program, or, for early career applicants, a letter from their Head of Department indicating their status;
  6. For early career applicants ONLY, a copy of Ph.D. certificate/diploma awarded;
The entire dossier shall be compiled as a single PDF file and submitted by email to ASAA Conference Secretariat asaaconference@gmail.com with ASR PEAS workshop in the subject line. 

Selection Criteria:
Applicants selected for participation will be notified by the ASR’s Managing Editor after confirmation of the applicant’s ASAA registration, by SEPTEMBER 1, 2017.
All successful applicants shall receive the following:
  1. Payment of ASAA conference registration fee;
  2. Accommodation for three nights (workshop and ASAA meeting); and,
  3. Meals for three days and nights (workshop and ASAA meeting).
Applicants are responsible for their own travel and all other costs incurred. However, limited funding for travel within the continent courtesy of the Royal Air Maroc, and accommodation courtesy of the African Studies Association (USA) is available. Priority will be given to applicants from under-resourced institutions.  Women are particularly encouraged to apply. 
General queries may be directed to Kathryn Salucka kathryn@africanstudies.org or Benjamin Lawrance bnl.rit2011@gmail.com with ASR PEAS workshop in the subject line.



Thank you to CAAS/ACEA for assistance in French translation. Please consider attending the CAAS/ACEA annual conference at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, May 4-6, 2018. Details to be announced shortly on http://caas-acea.org/conference/annual-conference.