Resisting Invisibility: Black faculty in Art and Art History in Canada

Friday, March 2, 2012

Charmaine Nelson, McGill University
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the VP Equity Issues series on Black History Month in Canada.

As Black History Month draws to a close and Women’s History Month begins, I am reminded of the importance of my identity as a black female scholar. More specifically, I am a rare breed of Canadian academic, a black female art historian. At the most recent meeting of the Universities Art Association of Canada (UAAC) annual conference in Ottawa in 2011, I found myself again startled by the dominant whiteness of the participants. That first day, in between sessions, I spotted the brilliant artist Deanna Bowen – who is of African-Canadian and African-American ancestry – in the lobby of the National Gallery of Canada. We embraced, sharing the rather sad joke over tea, that as the sole black delegates (at least as far as we observed over the two days) we were desperately out-numbered and woefully under-represented. This association is mainly composed of Canadian artists, museum professionals and art historians, some unaffiliated and many attached to academic institutions. I should say that my surprise is within the context of my ongoing membership that commenced in the earlier 1990’s when I was still a graduate student doing my MA in Art History. That was almost twenty years ago. Sadly, in terms of the participation of blacks, other people of colour and Native peoples, not much has changed.

Cut to Los Angeles, in February 2012 and I have just returned from the American version of UAAC. The College Art Association (CAA) might best be described as UAAC on steroids; a hyped-up, self-conscious, glossy, sometimes overwhelming version of the smaller and more low key Canadian group. Similarly, CAA, which usually meets in New York or Los Angeles, brings together cultural works, artists and art historians mainly from the United States, but also many more internationals (like myself) than UAAC attracts to Canada. As problematic as American racial politics can be, and as generally white as the fields of fine arts and art history are, at CAA I sat on a panel (chaired by the esteemed MacArthur Genius Award recipient Prof. Deborah Willis) with six other black female art historians.  The United States is certainly no paradise for black art historians or black academics generally. So this moment was, for us, notable and we  took photos to mark the occasion:  Our session may have been the first one in the one hundred year history of CAA to assemble an all-black panel. But the distinction between UAAC and CAA is stark. When I wandered the halls of the LA Convention Center or scanned the book fair, I regularly spotted black delegates who consciously acknowledged me with a smile or conversation, a gesture of solidarity and welcome. In contrast, the Canadian landscape of art historians employed in university-level academia is, well, me. I would really like to be proven wrong on this point. However, when I ventured to state during my UAAC presentation that I was, to my knowledge, the only black tenured or tenure-stream professor of art history teaching in a Canadian university, I heard no objections from the audience. By the way, the topic of that paper was my experience of being a black female professor of art history in Canada, teaching Black Diasporic art. Yes, there are some incredible black curators doing great work;  Gaetane Verna, Andrea Fatona and Pamela Edmonds come to mind. There are also some wonderful black Studio Art professors like Robert Holland Murray at Concordia University in Montreal. As well, there are a lot of great artists, most of whom get little or no attention from the white-dominated public and private art venues across the country. But as for black art history professors employed in Canadian universities, I’m it, the only one. So why should we care? There is an ongoing invisibility and even erasure of talented black intellectuals, artists, writers and scholars in the Canadian academy. But we also need to acknowledge and challenge the dominant lens through which this invisibility tends to be examined. Contrary to popular belief, not all issues, objects, events and materials of relevance to race, racism, colonialism, slavery and the Black Diaspora can be situated within or examined from the perspective of social science disciplines such as politics, sociology, psychology or law. Art and visual culture more broadly were and continue to be central to western programs of slavery, colonialism and ongoing conditions of racial oppression and marginalization.  Monarchs, colonial administrators and European citizens had to be convinced of the rightness of the colonial project and the morality and economic viability of empire building. The visual representation of the human body and practices of racial differentiation were absolutely central and necessary to the “success” of European colonization and the resource extraction made possible by the enslavement and diasporization of Africans. Culture, as Edward Said reminded us, was and remains inextricably linked to imperialism and justifications for subjugation and exclusion. In imperial projects, “high”, “low” and popular art were arts of persuasion, playing a central role in that process. It was largely through the mass dissemination of prints that Europeans, most of who would never set foot in a colony nor ever lay eyes on an African, became convinced of the subhuman position of this heterogeneous population and the appropriateness of their enslavement as a part of a so-called civilizing mission. Indeed, the processes and practices of the institution of slavery were as enshrined in western art museums as they were in scientific treatises and legislation. The scholars needed to recuperate and interrogate this colonial artistic legacy need to be trained in the cultural, social and political histories of art and visual culture. Such scholars are today most often found in art history departments. That is why the absence of diverse academics within the Canadian context working on such issues is such a cause for alarm. Traditionally, art history in Canada has been an almost exclusively white discipline, one that has proven (to my mind) the most resistant discipline in the humanities to postcolonial and black feminist critiques. The reason, simply put, is that the traditional methodologies (biography, connoisseurship and formalism) were used to create canons of great white male artists regularly defined as master and/or genius. Before the white feminist interventions of the 1970’s, people of colour and white women were only usually admitted into art history as subjects of art and objects of inquiry, and not as producers and agents of art and culture. Of course, it is  not that we had never made anything of value prior to the 1970’s. Rather, art historical disciplinarity did not acknowledge the art and culture of those marginalized groups – for example, Africans, Indigenous peoples –as worthy of scholarly contemplation. Historically, white males strategically policed access to the production of so-called high art for centuries including, for instance, by prohibiting black people, Native people and women from attending art academies. As well, the types and genres of art that blacks and women were allowed to produce were distinct from the most revered categories of art in which white men participated and valorized. A key example of this is white male artists’ historical stranglehold on history painting and the nude. These were two of the most revered western genres of “high” art, genres which necessitated study from the unclothed model in life drawing classes. And, accordingly, white men deemed people of colour and white women too intellectually inferior and/or sexually lascivious to partake in such education. The disciplinary shifts that have allowed me to exist today in art history as a black female academic are not only shifts in approach and method. Rather, changes in approach and method have led to related shifts in the questions that can be posed in the face of the art object and, significantly, debates over the nature of which art objects are worthy of contemplation. It is through these disciplinary changes that I can exist today as a scholar who examines art made by black people, as well as one who critiques the colonial legacies of the art made by white people. As black academics and black people we need to address – and resist – the continuing invisibility of black artists, art historians and cultural workers in Canada generally and the lack of support for, if not overt exclusion of, the population that does exist. We need to encourage more of our bright young black students to pursue art history, fine arts, cinema and media studies degrees for example. And we need to open spaces and create a more welcoming and inclusive environment in the academy and in scholarly associations for such students to thrive. We also need more talented black Canadians to become film and television directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, curators, designers, artists and yes, art historians! And when they embark on these difficult and extremely lonely paths, we need to support them in their studies, mentor them, help them to create supportive networks and become their patrons and audiences. Yes, we need to buy their art, read their books and go to their movies. In so doing, it is my hope that should I happen to attend a session at UAAC or CAA twenty years from now, the presence of black delegates will no longer be something worthy of comment, because we will simply be everywhere.

Charmaine Nelson is an Associate Professor of Art History in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal.



Equity Matters




Thank you for a lovely, insightful article! I am a doctoral candidate in Cinema and Media Studies, and your words ring so true. Different lenses yield different readings. We do a great disservice to art and culture when we refuse to acknowledge those lenses.

Timely article Prof. Nelson! For one, we sometimes hear (in French at least) that this is about Black's Month... the history part gets, conveniently, left out. I remember being taught by Robert Murray and interviewing him to find out that he was kept out of the tenure track professorship: very telling of the politics in the faculty of arts in Canada. I also appreciate your perspective on being the "only". As the first african descent art therapist out of Concordia U., I remember "looking out to mentor" any other student following that path, only to be astonished at how much students are encouraged to believe that identity nor ethnicity matters: as if being a good clinician entailed making identity invisible... There is so much left to be done. Hey?!