African-American Art: Redefining the Canon

... But despite the relative abundance of published material (to which, year-after-year, new titles are being added), it is, in my view, time to take a critical look at the state of publishing and teaching about African-American art history and to question its widespread and, by now, rather pointed exclusion of wider diasporic influences and considerations. I'd like to make a plea for a more inclusive approach to the canon of African-American art history, one in which international aspects and considerations are given their due and proper consideration. Too often, African-American art is, in effect, kept at arm’s length from a range of relevant and highly pertinent contexts, which leads to it be presented, time and again, in relative or absolute isolation. We should also consider, as part of the issues related to teaching the subject, that African-American art fulfils what might be termed “ethnic” considerations in many institutions. This means that it is not seen as “American History” or American art history per se, but instead as a foreign locus of cultural practice within American art, in much the same way one might view Native American art.

There are of course multiple reasons for this quarantining of African-American art history within published research. First and foremost, perhaps, are the ways in which academia arguably discourages interdisciplinary approaches to its subjects and its teaching. To teach African-American art history within the wider contexts of Pan-Africanism and other international considerations would require an emphatic abandoning of an academic mindset that insists on narrow, rather than broader approaches. In this sense, “knowing about” and “teaching about” African-American artists in the context of such things as the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Works Progress Administration, would have to take place alongside a corresponding and interrelated “knowing about” and “teaching about” these same subjects in relation to personalities such as Marcus Garvey, Edna Manley, and Nancy Cunard.

Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), together with several other significant Black thinkers and activists of the early twentieth century, pioneered, developed, and articulated many of the ideas that today we refer to as the Black Diaspora. He was arguably the most important international figure in twentieth-century Black political and cultural thinking and activism. Garvey lived a fascinating and extraordinary life, being born in a small town in rural Jamaica and eventually dying in London at a relatively young age. His life’s work embraced, touched, and affected innumerable parts of the world, including Central America, North America, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. A writer, political activist, editor, poet, and journalist, Garvey’s defining work was Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Or, Africa for the Africans (1923–1925.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers' text, "African-American Art: Redefining the Canon", which appeared in Critical Interventions,  special issue: Transformations, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2010: 16 - 26