Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 2016
Eddie Chambers Reflections on African and African Diaspora Art Re-Views: Field Editors’ Reflections, caa.reviews. College Art Association

Re-Views: Field Editors’ Reflections
caa.reviews

Today marks a historic moment for caa.reviews, because with our fourth installment of “Re-Views: Field Editors’ Reflections” the journal is acknowledging its commitment to reviewing scholarly books about African, African American, and African Diaspora art. No one is more responsible for this focus than field editor Eddie Chambers, who since July 2014 has tirelessly shepherded more than twenty reviews from commission to publication, with many more on the way. In explaining how he understands the mission, he writes: “I see my work as a field editor as having the potential to enhance the field and to contribute to the creation of a forum in which professors, graduate students, and other scholars across the country and across the world can recognize, respond to, and critically engage with each other’s published work.” This vision mirrors mine for the journal, and he has perfectly described the future of caa.reviews: it will one day be the academic commons for art. But enough about the future, for Chambers is living proof of how one person can make a difference today. His devotion is a politics of the one for the many. #BlackLivesMatter

David Raskin, Editor-in-Chief, caa.reviews

REFLECTIONS ON AFRICAN AND AFRICAN DIASPORA ART

Initially, I was appointed field editor with responsibility for African Diaspora-related publications. An inaugural position, the appointment was made over the summer of 2014. A little while later, I took on responsibility for assigning reviews in the area of African Art, taking over from the previous field editor of that area. Both African Art and African Diaspora art history are fields that reflect and embody knotty complexities that mean the work of the respective field editor(s) is not and cannot be particularly straightforward. In the first instance, African Diaspora is a category with certain vagaries, chiefly, perhaps, the matter of African American artists’ proximity to or relationship with African Diaspora artists. Coming from a British background, it was for me a cause of some puzzlement to arrive in the United States and realize that within academia, African America and African Diaspora are routinely regarded, taught, and constructed as separate entities. The culturally charged emergence and evolution of black Britain, which occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, owed much to a potent variety of factors, one of the most clearly defined being black Britons’ admiration for and regarding of the histories and struggles of black America as part and parcel of the international black experience. It was quite a surprise to realize that the default academic position in the United States was pretty much to see black America as somehow being, by and large, a self-referencing, somewhat quarantined entity, with little or no structural relationship with the lives and histories of other black people—not even those of the wider Americas.

In beginning to assign reviews, I made no distinction between African American art history and African Diaspora art history, insofar as identifying publications for review. There are perhaps good reasons to respect the distinct academic characteristics of different demographics, regions, histories, and experiences, but from a black British perspective, there are also perhaps good reasons to set to one side categories that lean toward a certain quarantining of said demographics, regions, histories, and experiences. None of this is, of course, straightforward. The centuries-old histories of African American artists consistently reflect the knotty questions of when should an artist be an “African American” artist and not simply, or just, an “American” artist? What are the motivations, rationales, and justifications for the creating of separate categories? Given that the core aspect of the ongoing struggle of African Americans for civil rights and full citizenship is the yearning to exist without the inevitable need for an often constraining raced prefix, the assigning of reviews became a particularly loaded process. If the publications of U.S.-born or U.S.-resident artists are identified on the basis of a perceived or assumed African American-ness, might that be of a piece with the histories of the art world’s oftentimes problematic engagement with African American artists, artists who are regarded for their perceived or apparent ethnicity, the supposed raced content of their work, and other pathologies that have been such a debilitating factor in the lives and aspirations of these artists? I was conscious that caa.reviews did not have a dedicated field editor for African American art and that reviews relating to African American artists had, perhaps, simply been assigned under the rubric of wider (though perhaps no less problematic) categories.

Taking on responsibility for commissioning reviews relating to African Art similarly meant attempting to navigate several difficult issues. In the first instance, there existed three different categories which all in some way referenced the continent of Africa, and each having, or having had, its dedicated field editor: Art of the Middle East/North Africa, Egyptian/Ancient Near Eastern Art, and African Art (sub-Saharan). Perhaps reflective of the neat compartmentalizing that is the wont of academia, there were ways in which the categories reflected what I felt to be troubling, historical pathologies relating to Africa. Since the early to mid-twentieth century certain artists and activists have sought to bring Egypt back into Africa, rather than accept a hegemonic idea that it is somehow not part of the continent and has a self-referencing history all of its own that can be neatly separated from the rest of Africa. In moments of particular skepticism, one imagines that when asked to locate Egypt on a map of the world void of any markings, many people might place Egypt somewhere east of the African continent, perhaps east of the Red Sea. This, so it could be argued, is more than casual ignorance, but is born of pronounced attempts to de-Africanize Egypt and move the country out of the continent. Key paintings by the likes of Loïs Mailou Jones and Aaron Douglas, and more recent work by, for example, Fred Wilson, have sought to ask questions of this relocation, though the struggle to keep Egypt in Africa, or draw it back into Africa, is clearly an ongoing one.

There may be, as far as art historians are concerned, good, sound reasons why the countries of north Africa are divided, Berlin Wall-like, or Great Wall of China-like, with Egypt being carved off and bracketed with Ancient Near Eastern Art, while the remainder of north Africa is said to constitute the Maghreb—Libya, Algeria, and so on—and is part of the Art of the Middle East/North Africa category. It is my belief that historians and art historians should be asking more pressing questions of the ways in which “the East” continues to exist as if it is a stable and credible notion, not resulting from any kind of discriminatory pathology and cultural hegemony. The earth is a spherical entity, a round solid shape, with every point on its surface being equidistant from its center. As such, there is, very simply, no credible, believable, or geographical notion of “the East,” let alone the Middle East, Near East, or, God forbid, the Far East. Such spaces can only exist if one accepts the obviously flawed idea that a map of the world must inevitably be laid out, or imagined, with China to the East, and the Americas to the West. Coming to the University of Texas at Austin I found out that “Far West” was an area of Austin. But until Far West exists as a reference to an unspecific region of the world, shrouded in inscrutability and mystery, to be traversed only by the most intrepid, we should perhaps set to one side any geographical or academic constructs that have us inching gingerly from the Near East to the Middle East to the Far East—unless we can categorically do so in the other direction. Perhaps treading on the toes of other field editors, I found myself assigning reviews that encroached in territory beyond African Art (sub-Saharan) and Latin American/Caribbean Art, and into the fields of Art of the Middle East/North Africa and Egyptian/Ancient Near Eastern Art.

The bracketing of Latin American Art with Caribbean Art has created opportunities to pick up on the African dimensions of Latin American art, where such scholarship exists. To this end, the first review I commissioned was Grupo Antillano: The Art of Afro-Cuba, edited by Alejandro de la Fuente (click here for review). Written by Rachel Weiss and published on April 16, 2015, this was a perfect example of one of the things I hoped to achieve during my tenure as a field editor. The review not only asked questions of Latin American art’s proximity to, and engagement with, Caribbean art, it also problematized the ways in which both entities, though relatively new additions to the canon of art history, already tend to exist in fairly fixed terms that deny or overlook the complexities of race, ethnicity, and identity in both the Caribbean and Latin American regions. Furthermore, Weiss’s review fulfilled that golden, primary function of a good piece of writing: it critically informed, by which I mean that valuable information (in this instance, on aspects of the art of Afro-Cuba) was presented with pronounced degrees of both clarity and criticality. The second commissioned review to be published continued in a similar vein. Published just under a week after Weiss’s text, Abigail McEwen reviewed Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds, an exhibition catalogue edited by Elizabeth T. Goizueta (click here for review). Fortuitously, both reviews touched (albeit in markedly different ways) on the African dimensions of Latin American art, though in the case of McEwen’s review, the exhibition catalogue in question was a demonstrable indication of the ways in which Cuba’s most recognized artist, Lam, was of mixed ancestry, African and European on his mother’s side, and his father having been Chinese.

With African Diaspora being the newest and most recent addition to the fields of art history covered by caa.reviews, it was, I believed, imperative that as many related publications as possible be assigned for review. Given that there are very few professors, of any rank, dedicated to the field of African Diaspora (and given that graduate students whose subjects related to this topic were similarly few in number), I see my work as a field editor as having the potential to enhance the field and to contribute to the creation of a forum in which professors, graduate students, and other scholars across the country and across the world can recognize, respond to, and critically engage with each other’s published work. Relatively few art publications emerge from the Caribbean region itself, and I want to ensure, as much as is possible, that those that do are brought to the attention of the caa.reviews readership. Speaking as one whose personal area of primary research is black British art history, I am all too aware that formidable challenges of visibility and ever-threatening erasure and obscurity hallmark the struggles of far too many artists. One strategy to enhance the profile and the entity of African Diaspora art history is to commission and see brought into existence reviews of the limited number of publications in the field. With reviews running to a minimum of 1,500 words, publications thus assigned can avail themselves of a substantial and singular platform of increased visibility and critical engagement.

The supposedly canonical fields of art history such as Baroque, Roman, Renaissance, Byzantine, medieval, and so on exist as core subjects around which the country’s major art history departments are built. While African Diaspora art history is frequently assigned to a solitary faculty member (who oftentimes has a concurrent responsibility for African Art and/or African American art), the supposedly core disciplines or fields of inquiry often have senior dedicated faculty who, together with their graduate students, amount to relatively substantial numbers of both senior and junior scholars. Those art history departments that have a solitary faculty member responsible for the teaching of African/African American/African Diaspora art history are in effect requiring that professor to be responsible for art practice the world over. Not only that, but art practice going back millennia. In comparison to those able to assign or write reviews relating to fields such as Baroque, Roman, Renaissance, Byzantine, and medieval, the task, the challenge, of assigning African Diaspora-related reviews falls to a decidedly small number of professors and graduate students. This, I imagine, creates challenges not necessarily faced by field editors with responsibility for more well-endowed—whether in terms of faculty or graduate students—areas of art-historical scholarship.

If one were immersed in the field of African Diaspora art history, as a relatively new field, the chances are that one will personally know or have had significant contact with many of the players in the field, be they artists, curators, gallery directors, art critics, or whomever. While this familiarity can be a wonderful pedagogical asset, it also brings with it its own challenges, as on occasion a publication can be more easily assigned when a writer has a certain “distance” from the protagonists associated with it. At the same time, of course, one would always wish to assign reviews to those whose respect for the field, comprehension of its breadth, and level of critical engagement were foundational aspects of their practice and research. As the African Diaspora art history field grows, and more professors and graduate students commit to it, so the assigning of reviews will become relatively less of a challenging process.

While books, including exhibition catalogues, on Caribbean Art are occasionally published, conspicuous by their near-wholesale absence are studies relating to individual artists outside the pantheon of international stardom and lucrative auction-house prices. I have assigned reviews of several books on Jean-Michel Basquiat (the one published thus far being Betty J. Crouther’s review of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Basquiat and the Bayou [click here for review]). But with Basquiat having died in 1988, under the age of thirty (and his stock immediately rising accordingly), and one of his paintings selling for $48.8 million a couple of years ago, his practice exists in an altogether different space to that of the vast majority of modern and contemporary African Diaspora artists, for whom the dedicated monograph remains, and has only ever been, a dream. One of the only other monographic publications assigned for review, by Carol Dixon, was the exhibition catalogue for Chris Ofili: Night and Day (click here for review). But again, both the monograph and its corresponding exhibition should be situated within the context of Ofili’s standing in the art world, as indicated by one of his paintings fetching some $4.6 million at auction in June 2015. Of course, scholarship exists within its own terms of reference, and there will always be a need for more to be written on any given artist or type and period of art, including the relatively well-attended to example of Basquiat. Even so, like Basquiat, Ofili is perhaps atypical of artists of the African diaspora in chronic need of dedicated, published scholarship and more substantial exhibition opportunities.

The point might have a certain existentialism about it, but as a field editor one can only assign reviews of that which has been brought into existence, so perhaps it does not do, in this forum at least, to labor points about the lack of substantial scholarship on so many artists of the African diaspora. Returning to the matter of how relatively few art publications emerge from the Caribbean region itself, the Caribbean remains, indeed in some ways exists as, one of the least understood, engaged with, or recognized regions of the world. Artists there have, from the early twentieth century to the present, struggled for a local, regional, and international visibility in line with their training, their aspirations, and their practice. The formidable economic constraints of many people of the area are of a piece with the patchy visual arts infrastructure that, with few exceptions, tends to exist there. Until greater resources—from whichever quarter—are committed to art and artists of the region, it is a certainty that very few substantial publications will be generated from within the Caribbean, even as relatively few publications on Caribbean artists are generated in Europe or North America, the two principle geopolitical spaces of art-world validation.

Notwithstanding some of the formidable challenges referenced above, it is a privilege to work as a field editor with responsibility for African Diaspora-related publications, because, as mentioned, in that capacity one has the potential to contribute to the growth of the field by assisting in greater amounts of scholarship and critical reflection being brought into existence.

Eddie Chambers
Field Editor for African Art and African Diaspora art history, caa.reviews; Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.