Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s
Kobena Mercer is Professor of History of Art and African American Studies at Yale University. He is author of Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, editor of Cosmopolitan Modernisms, among other titles, and an inaugural recipient of the 2006 Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing.
This chapter accompanied a 1995 exhibition that curated black British artists’ responses to mid-twentieth-century African studio portraits by Seydou Keïta in Mali and Mama Casset in Senegal. With close attention to stylistic choices that reflect the agency of such practitioners, as well as the modern African self-fashioning of their urban sitters, giving the portraits a degree of aesthetic autonomy that surpasses mere documentation and creates a striking alternative to the “othering” produced by colonial representation, the chapter also addresses the diasporic reception context as a liminal or “in-between” space. Artists such as Ingrid Pollard acknowledge the uncanny intimacy of archival materials that evoke a sense of familiarity, even though African photographs from the 1930s to the 1960s had never been widely seen in the West or exhibited as art before the 1990s.