Celeste-Marie Bernier

Associate Professor of American Literature, University of Nottingham


Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow, Spring 2010

The “Slave Ship Imprint:” The Body, Memory and Representation in Fifty Years of African American and Black British Visual Arts 1960-2010

Project Description

The “Slave Ship Imprint:” The Body, Memory and Representation in Fifty Years of African American and Black British Visual Arts 1960-2010

My current book project, The “Slave Ship Imprint:” The Body, Memory and Representation in Fifty Years of African American and Black British Visual Arts 1960-2010, examines the provocative, challenging and powerful ways in which African American and Black British artists have engaged with the difficult legacies of slavery, colonialism and empire in their diverse sculpture, painting, photography, graffiti, quilts, mixed-media installations,
murals, and digital and performance art produced over a fifty year period between 1960-2010. In clear-cut ways, a fundamental concern of this project is to address their self-reflexive engagement with both a politicized aesthetic and an aestheticized politics across their experimental oeuvre. Key African American artists under discussion will include: Melvin Edwards, Romare Bearden, Deborah Willis, Adrian Piper, Glenn Ligon, Thornton Dial, Gordon Parks, Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson, David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, Reneé Cox and Benny Andrews. As regards Black British artists, this project will investigate works by Lubaina Himid, Eddie Chambers, Ingrid Pollard, Joy Gregory, Donald Rodney, Sutapa Biswas, Mona Hatoum, Steve McQueen, Roshini Kempadoo, Vanley Burke, Tam Joseph, Keith Piper, Rasheed Araeen, Chris Ofili, Godfried Donkor, Yinka Shonibare and Sonia Boyce, among others. As this research project demonstrates, in diverse and multifarious ways, African American and Black British artists are committed not only to a rejection of but a resistance to the widespread “whitewashing” (Eddie Chambers) of a black diasporic visual arts tradition.

Across their eclectic yet under-researched works, black male and female bodies emerge as sites and sights not only of violation but of empowerment as these artists come to grips in interrogative ways with the politics and poetics of black memorialization and representation. Working with an array of forms and media, these artists push formal boundaries to engage with the signifying possibilities not only of abstract versus figurative art but also of found materials, assemblage, installation, sculpture, street and performance art, photography and digital media as they search for a new visual language. Engaging with diverse ways of “speaking the unspeakable” and “seeing the unseeable,” these artists’ works can be understood as existing in powerful relation to an array of social, political and historical contexts as they debate forceful issues related to the diasporic legacies of slavery, colonialism and empire. Equally, their oeuvre testifies both to their resistance to and revisioning of dominant trends and developments within the white mainstream art world. Thus, they founded radical art movements such as the Black Arts Movement in the U.S. and the BLK Art Group in the U.K. in order to combat ongoing forces of exclusion and marginalization. Clearly, their works address a range of debates and issues, including: the relationship between visual arts and signifying strategies of black radical resistance; the black body as a locus of trauma, “rememory” and empowerment; aesthetic and political subversion of white rituals of violence and violation as well as dominant forces of legal, political, national and social erasure and annihilation; revisionist recovery of a “multiplicity of histories” (Lubaina Himid); imaginative interrogations of white strategies of black stereotyping and caricature; deconstructions of skewed power hierarchies and complex sexual politics; explorations of tessellated relationships between the search for an autobiographical selfhood, genealogical bloodlines and familial networks; finally, widespread debates surrounding conceptualizations of “Black” and “post Black” as artists such as SuAndi continue to “break the myth that there was only one definition of Black.”

Excavating and even recovering a wealth of under examined research materials and artworks, this project addresses Kobena Mercer’s powerful statement that, even as of 2009, “The art history of the black diaspora is still an ‘undiscovered’ country.” Thus, this research project analyzes the competing yet overlapping challenges faced by African American and Black British artists over a fifty year period as they confront competing racist contexts not only of exhibition, collecting and patronage but also of audience reception and scholarly analysis. Across their experimental and eclectic oeuvre, they pose their own challenge to the “filter of a web of racist images,” as compellingly theorized by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Moreover, and in addition to examining their self-reflexive aesthetic practices and their refusal to shy away from difficult subject-matter, this project directly engages with these artists’ multifaceted relationship to an array of aesthetic, social, historical and political contexts. Living and working on both sides of the Atlantic, twentieth and twenty-first century black artists adopt radical and revisionist practices by which to confront the difficult legacies of slavery, colonialism and empire. As this research shows, their diverse resistance strategies testify not only to their ongoing fight for civil rights but also to the right to art for art’s sake as they reject scholarly attempts to examine black visual art works solely for their sociological and political dimensions. In this regard, Keith Piper’s view that, “Black Art must set about the task with added vigor of realigning the shattered fragments of our histories before they are dispersed forever,” is integral to this project. Equally, this research is inspired by Lubaina Himid’s powerful declaration that, “WE WILL BE/ WHO WE WANT/WHERE WE WANT/ WITH WHOM WE WANT,” no less than Howardena Pindell’s insistence that the onus is upon scholars, no less than artists, to reject dominant acts and arts of “visual terrorism.” Clearly, and according to eclectic and experimental works produced by contemporary African American and Black British artists, there is no safe ground from which to engage with the powerful legacies of slavery, colonialism and empire. As Betye Saar powerfully explains, “That slave ship imprint is on all of us.”

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