Black Portraiture[s] III - Reinventions: Strains of Histories & Cultures


Originally published May 31, 2017 - The International Journal of Fashion Studies

‘Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements: they see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.’ - Frederick Douglass

The Black Portraiture[s] Conference – held in November 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa – was an internationally recognized forum for artists, activists, and scholars to share ideas about the current state of the field of African, African Diaspora and African American art and art history. The first in the on going series of symposiums was held in Florence, Italy, followed by a revisted edition in New York City at the NYU Washington Square Campus.

As in past years, this edition of Black Portraiture[s] aimed to break new ground in the fields of art history, Africana Studies and fine art criticism and, under the blazing sun, achieved just that in the way of critical engagement. The three day series of conversations – led by Deb Willis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. – began with a keynote by the American Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, followed by renowned artist and art historian David C. Driskell. The latter reflected in much detail on his experiences of South Africa as an artist and curator in the 1970s. Concurrent panels were held throughout each day to illustrate the strength of collaboration across countries, continents and the arts, while probing histories, student activism, theoretical approaches and methodologies. Over 150 panelists from five continents debated and discussed the art market, new museums in Africa and the Middle East, the biennial effect, art and art activism, the sexual politics of art exhibition, the state of criticism, and the fashion industry. Conference participants, though led by panelists, took over much of the formal discussions, addressing topics such as the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprisings, the recent Rhodes Must Fall protests, and the state of contemporary art practice in South Africa – all intrinsically significant to the socio-political climate in which the meet took place.

Some twenty years after the end of Apartheid, the location of the third Black Portraiture[s] Conference in South Africa has historic and contemporary significance. As Ambassador Gaspard noted in his key not address to the symposium, ‘Johannesburg was the site of the first biennial of contemporary art in South Africa in 1995 – one year after the democratic election of Nelson Mandela – and currently boasts a vibrant art scene, with important private and state funded galleries and museums, as well as universities invested in the study and celebration of the arts (2016. Further, this particular conference coincides with the 50th anniversary of the pioneering Goodman Gallery located in the city, where the exhibition Africa America will feature the work of some of the world’s most sought after African, African American and African Diaspora artists, curated by Liza Essers and Hank Willis Thomas. As Ambassador Gaspard noted,

It is of keen consequence that this conversation should arrive in Johannesburg not only at a moment of historical reflections, but also at a critical juncture when the masses of young Africans throughout the diaspora are no longer mere subjects in the running narrative on equal access to justice, but have become the improvisational producers and curators of their own provocations. Yes, this is the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, and it is right that we should commune with the spirit of those students – who marched from tragedy to triumph – through the photographic witness of Peter Magubane, [one of South Africa’s most prolific photojournalists, and long time contributor to the historic Drum Magazine]. But we’re also convened in a contemporary African city crackling with the energies of storytellers who compel us to shift our sights towards their present vibrant questionings, as given expression through ubiquitous smartphones and canvases pulsing with urgent yearnings. 

According to Danielle Bowler, a speech writer, social activist and attendee of the conference, ‘this particular edition of Black Portraitures was an entry-point to many of the conversations about the multiple sides of blackness that have remained beneath the surface of superficial conversation; on Twitter timelines and threads, while simultaneously re-energising many of the discussions that are already taking place.’ This is in direct reference to the way expressions of anger, unity, disconnect and hope as they relate to these topics, have dominated the popular culture space, in particular on the internet, a subject widely discussed within the symposium.

The series of interactive panel discussions formed and moderated by students, scholars and art industry professionals confronted contradictions of unity, togetherness and the idea of home, that abound in the United States and Africa, and summoned us to the notion once more that the black body itself continues to be the ultimate site of memory, most apparent in the discussions following Transgressive Acts: Transnational Bodies, Memory and Cartographies of Change, in which feelings of American entitlement, rage at ‘the forgetting of Africa’ and ‘hierarchies of blackness’ were expressed, contested and debated.

We seem obligated, in this age of digital directness, to sabotage nuance in favor of crass polemics, a topic most poignantly tackled in the Digital Diasporic Connections panel. Black erasure was the original sin in the compilation of historic record in the sciences and arts. Erasure gave way to distortion and distortion now yields too often the verbal grenades of armed camps, as discussed in #BlackLivesMatter: Interrogating Representations of Black Bodies in Pain and Black Lives Without History.

Milisuthando Bongela, arts and culture editor at The Mail & Guardian, and host of the penultimate panel of the conference, commented in her opening address that ‘those who understand the relationship between beauty and freedom welcomed this conference in the hopes that it might have a lesson to impart on how one might sustain the gaze of justice. African Americans are in the midst of litigating what is often perceived as a predacious judicial system, while South Africans labor to create a more broadly shared prosperity two decades into their new birth of freedom.’(2016)

The poets, prophets and reformers at this conference showed up in their numbers to speak and sing hope into this space, filling the corridors with a harmony of voices in between panels, as is customary in tradition African cuktures when celebrating or mourning. The great Malian portrait photographer Seydou Keïta, whose work was on display at the Turbine Hall filled the space with pieces that reflected the beauty, joy and nuances of culture encompassed in the words of the singing women, visions of the African yard, Bamako to Brooklyn and beyond; a glance at the everyday life of the diaspora. This conference, as led by the incomparable Deb Willis and Henry Louis Gates Jr., served to successfully extend the dreamscape with its own ‘gritty orchestrations,’ as expressed by Bongela in discussion.

The session on Universal BlacknessThe Black Diaspora Experience in The 21st Century Presented by ARTNOIR allowed participants to connect, expressing their desire for more crititical interpersonal engagement and more attention to be paid to the impact of cultural appropriation on indigenous cultures. The last day’s panel on Nervous Conditions: Representations of Black Femininities was powerful, moving, poignant and important in the way it combined theortical study and art practice as a way of understanding the confinement imposed on the black female body. Tears were shed and much of the audience exchanged hugs at the close of the discussion, leaving a lasting sensation of warmth and comradery in the room.

With more than just their words, panelists and attendees alike voiced their opinions and concerns, the most striking example of which was the way in which everyone came dressed. Beads, prints, headwraps and other bodily ardornments rich with an imagined heritage, reigned supreme amoungst the colourful crowd of people moving through Turbine Hall; in corridors and conversationally in discussions on Aframerican Transcultural Aesthetics. Identity politics and the anger that priviledged ‘temporary safe spaces’ such as the one provided by the symposium space create around them, with particular focus on that of the LGBTQI community, emerged as a central theme, as was demonstrated on several of the panels, most notably Our Lives As Theory: LGBTQI & African…Remixed and Reimaging The Archive Through A Queer Lens. Discussing the hierarchy of blackness, panelist Wanelisa Xaba observes that ‘they make us feel disposable, as if to say you [as queer or gender non binary] are the person we can afford to lose, if we are fighting for liberation’ (Wanelisa Xaba, panelist). One anonymous attendee was quoted as saying ‘threaded participants speaking themselves and their identity in and into the space through sartorial and other languages, intra-black conversations about power, location, diaspora, support (or lack thereof) for each other’s cross-continental struggles as well as critiques about the conference itself in real-time made it a loaded, stimulating, contested, brilliant and challenging space to be in. I have been left with many questions and ideas spinning around in my head.’

Multiple critical conversations took place outside official discussions, whether on the lawns of Turbine Hall by day, or in the corners of the receptions at local galleries over glasses of wine, proving the lasting impact of the conversations, and hinting at the work that still needs to be done. Part of the challenge going forward would be in allowing these entry-point discussions more room in the next conference, whilst thinking more critically about the space it takes place in and the pertinent questions of power and privilege that have emerged, while engaging and encouraging the contestations that stem from them.