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Nzegwu, Nkiru, , . African Art in Deep Time: De‐race‐ing Aesthetics and De‐racializing Visual Art
2019, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 77 (4): 367-378.
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Added by: Simon Fokt, Contributed by:

Abstract: In two essays in the ART/Artifact(1988) exhibition catalog, white American museum curator Susan Vogel and white American philosopher Arthur Danto pronounce that Africans do not distinguish between art and nonart. Although seemingly objective empirical statements, their assertions about Africa and its art are racially based ruminations of a white supremacist worldview. I argue that in theorizing within the category of race they produced racialized aesthetics that commit the Eurocentric fallacy of upholding systemic racist objectives. I argue that (1) their assertions fail to be about African art, but about hegemony and power; (2) as the longest enduring artistic activity of humanity, African art is an important check to racialized aesthetics; (3) art is produced outside the category of race and from a critically conscious awareness of the world; and (4) art bespeaks creativity and presupposes the artistic and moral values of a culture in the manipulation and transformation of physical reality.

Comment: Written in an engaging way, this paper invites the reader to re-evaluate some common assumptions about art from different cultures. Exposing the prevalent Western approach to African art as racialised, it can be a great tool in making students understand both the structural-societal, as well as own biases in approaching other cultures. Ngzewu defends a powerful thesis: that ‘the West’s conception of art and creativity presupposes white racial hegemony.’ She exposes the way in which Western art is tacitly assumed to be a yardstick against which all is measured, and the Westerners have become the ‘purveyors of knowledge’ who apply this yardstick to decide whether works of other cultures are art, all without any need to consult the creators of those works, or to revise own concept of art. As such, the paper can be very empowering to some students, while also being very uncomfortable to others – teaching it might require some skill in leading the discussion in a constructive way. The import of Ngzewu’s argumentis that while racism and white domination rest on the assumption of cognitive and moral superiority of white people, the approach to African art she criticises serves to reinforce this assumption. This can inspire further class discussion on the importance and value of aesthetics. Best used before assigning other texts on non-Western art, which should all be read in light of Ngzewu’s criticism.

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Smalls, James, , . African-American Self-Portraiture
2001, Third Text, pp. 47-62.
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Added by: Hans Maes, Contributed by:

Summary: As ‘always already’ racialized object of the white patriarchal look African-Americans have enduringly suffered from having to negotiate notions of the self from a crisis position. The act of self-portraiture for the African-American artist has the value of bestowing upon the self-portraitist a sense of empowerment.

Comment: Useful in discussing portraiture and depiction, as well as empowerment and art’s role in power relations in general.

Artworks to use with this text:

Lyle Ashton Harris, Construct #10 (collection of the artist, 1988)

Harris’s self-portraits are redemptive and liberatory in their focus on the self. They challenge standard discourse on identity and subjectivity to present a new sign of black power and liberation. Because his photographs expose gender as constructed and performed, they also, in the process, subvert phallocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.

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Strother, Z.S., , . “A Photograph Steals the Soul”: The History of an Idea
2013, in: John Peffer and Elisabeth L. Cameron (eds.), Portraiture & Photography in Africa, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 177-212.
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Added by: Hans Maes, Contributed by:

Summary: Traces the origins of, and eventually challenges, the idea that many people in non-industrialized countries refused to have their photographic portrait taken due to the belief that it would steal their soul. Investigates and refutes the evidence provided by Richard Andree, James Napier, James G. Frazer. With references to C.S. Peirce, Rosalind Krauss, Susan Sontag.

Comment: Useful in aesthetics classes discussing portraiture, depiction and representation, as well as social and political philosophy classes focused on racial and cultural stereotyping.

Artworks to use with this text:

Antoine Freitas, self-portrait with handmade box camera in Bena Mulumba, Kasaï Province (1939)

A masterpiece of composition, showing the photographer at work, surrounded by children and women who would normally be kept away from recognized sorcerers (thereby demonstrating that the photographer was not considered an evil soul-stealing sorcerer).

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Taylor, Paul C., , . Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics
2016, Taylor, Paul C. (2015). Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics. Wiley-Blackwell.
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Added by: Andrea Blomqvist, Contributed by: Scott Robinson

Publishe

Publisher’s Note: Those who know anything about black history and culture probably know that aesthetics has long been a central concern for black thinkers and activists. The Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude movement, the Black Arts Movement, and the discipline of Black British cultural studies all attest to the intimate connection between black politics and questions of style, beauty, expression, and art. And the participants in these and other movements have made art and offered analyses that wrestle with clearly philosophical issues. In A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, I propose to identify and explore the most significant philosophical issues that emerge from the aesthetic dimensions of black life. The book will consist of eight short chapters, each of which will discuss a complex of related themes and phenomena. Every chapter will begin with one or two illustrative real-world examples, and then use the complexities of these opening cases to introduce the relevant issues. Many people in several fields have explored various bits of the terrain that I’ll cover. But none has surveyed the entire terrain in the name of aesthetics, and none has conducted this survey from an explicitly philosophical perspective. Setting up the project in this way means that its main conclusions will come in two forms. One kind of conclusion will emerge from the way I frame the issues. The two most important points here are that the field of aesthetics ought to cover more than the study of western fine art, and that the field of black aesthetics allows and requires the sort of comprehensive and philosophical analysis that I’ll offer. Another set of conclusions will emerge from my treatment of the specific issues in each chapter. In each case the aim will be to defend, albeit briefly, some position on the major issues raised in each chapter.

Comment: This text is an excellent introduction to Black American Aesthetics. Drawing on Critical Race Theory, Taylor locates the historical and philosophical background to black aesthetics in America. This text could be used as a contemporary text in a course on the tradition of aesthetics, or as an introductory text to a course on critical aesthetics. It could also be used in ‘Critical Race Theory’ courses for an aesthetics angle. Its chapters deal with issues of visibility, authenticity, embodiment and inter-racial exchanges.

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