Race-ing Art History: Contemporary Reflections on the Art Historical Canon
First Things First...
Inspired by art historian Kymberly N. Pinder’s anthology Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History (2002), this lecture was developed as part of a semester-long seminar introducing first-year students to the field of art history and the ways in which race—and more specifically whiteness—has been represented, acknowledged, ignored, and/or embedded in the art historical canon.
This lesson plan came from my “Race-ing Art History” seminar and shares the following objectives. From a perspective rooted in critical race theory, this lesson provides students with an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing key artworks, theories, and practices in art history and museum studies. We will explore the role of race in contemporary visual arts, visual culture, and exhibition practices, investigating how the field of art history, the presentation of race, and whiteness are inextricably tied. We will also study the ways in which artists subvert, contest, and speak to this complex history and the often-exclusionary art historical canon.
This lesson plan could be used to tie earlier works from larger surveys into more contemporary art. Additionally, it highlights artists who are speaking back to the hierarchy of the established canon in order to insert their voices and artistic practices into the greater art historical narrative. In this sense, rather than waiting until you introduce contemporary artists later in a survey, you could flash forward to introduce some of these artists while reviewing the earlier works they reference (introducing Shonibare during Fragonard, Galustian during Gérôme, or Wiley during Rubens, for instance).
Some questions to consider are:
- Art: What is high art, fine art, or low art? Who defines this? What is the canon? Who is allowed in? Who is not? Who decides this? How has the art historical canon changed over the years? Or has it?
- Race: What is race? Who defines it? How does it interface in the arts? What is whiteness? How does it impact the master narrative of art history? How has race been used, documented, or alluded to in art—historically and in the present? Does race of the artist matter? Why? Why not?
In an hour and fifteen minutes, this content area can be investigated through many objects, including:
- Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, 1748
- Yinka Shonibare, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads, 1998
- Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1766
- Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard), 2001
- Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800
- Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, 2005
- Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II of Spain, 1635
- Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II, 2009
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, 1806
- Kehinde Wiley, Ice T, 2005
- Frederick Arthur Bridgman, The Bath, c. 1890
- Eugène Delacroix, Algerian Women in their Apartments, 1834
- Jean-Léon Gérôme, Moorish Bath, 1883
- Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Slave Market, 1867
- Abelina Galustian, Womansword Series (quoting Gérôme’s Slave Market), 2000.
- Ettore Cerone, Examining Slaves, 1890
- Abelina Galustian, Womansword Series (quoting Cerone’s Examining Slaves), 2000
- Stanislaus von Chlebowski, Purchasing a Slave, 1879
- Abelina Galustian, Womansword Series (quoting von Chlebowski’s Purchasing a Slave), 2000–1
- Ken Gonzales-Day, Erased Lynching Series, 2000–13
- Ken Gonzales-Day, Tombstone, 2006
- Ken Gonzales-Day, East First Street, 2006
- Ken Gonzales-Day, At Daylight the Miserable Man Was Carried to an Oak, 2007
- Ken Gonzales-Day, Momento Mori, 2007
- Ken Gonzales-Day, Aaron, 2007
- Fred Wilson, multiple installations from Mining the Museum, 1992, including:
- Metalwork 1723–1880
- Cabinet Making 1820–1910
- Modes of Transport 1770–1910
This lecture begins by setting the stage with earlier works of art or concepts, followed by a juxtaposition with a more contemporary artist. If you want to pick and choose sections, the lecture and PowerPoint are broken up neatly by artist. To begin, I suggest warming up with Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews as an introductory painting that many students may have seen in prior surveys, or they will have seen something comparable at the very least.
Begin with lead-in questions such as, “What is this?” (A portrait); What do you see? (Two people: a man and a woman, a dog); What else do you see? (Land, tilled land, a gun); So, is this just a portrait of people, or what is this a painting of? (It is a portrait showing people and their land—a show of wealth and property)
Continue: When was it painted? (1748) Then, tease that out as well: What was happening in the world at that time? (Age of Enlightenment, slavery beginning in 1501) Showing off such vast property often meant that the owners also had people to tend the property: slavery wasn’t abolished on paper in the British Empire until 1807 and in the United States until 1865.
Here, I find it helpful to compare portraits to contemporary Facebook profile photos—how do students, friends, celebrities, etc., choose to present themselves in their profile pictures? Often, it is not just about the person but the things they love, like, and own. It is chosen and curated purposefully.
Next, introduce Yinka Shonibare’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads. This is clearly a direct riff on Gainsborough, so have students compare and contrast, asking lead-in questions if necessary: What has Shonibare done with Gainsborough’s painting? (He made it sculptural, took their heads off, replaced their dress with “African” prints that have their own history with colonialism). Why has he removed the heads? Is this an allegory? How is the viewer supposed to feel about this piece? How do you feel, and why?
Students are often a bit tentative here and aren’t sure what to say. Explore that and push them a bit further. Where has the land gone? (Shonibare has removed it.) What does that do to the piece? (Makes it about a void, makes it about what isn’t being seen. He forces the viewer to question the void, while also making the African side visible.)
The art historical canon becomes a vehicle and target in rethinking the complex colonial relationship between Europe and its laborers. Shonibare cuts down a tradition, reflecting on violence while showing that violence in a sterile way (much as history books have done) via headless mannequins. He also points up an art historical canon that the western world simply sees as Art History.
Nancy Hynes has commented on Shonibare’s use of wax-cloth, something that has become quintessential and exemplary of his work: “For Shonibare, the cloth is an apt metaphor for the entangled relationship between Africa and Europe and how the two continents have invented each other in ways currently overlooked or deeply buried.” Because of the complicated history of the wax print cloth, Shonibare uses it as a metaphor to suggest that nothing is as “authentic” as it might seem. His personal history as a London-born Englishman with a Nigerian family and upbringing is just as complex, so often he is considered and labeled an African artist though he was born in the UK and even awarded the decoration of Member of the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (MBE) by the same crown that stood behind the colonial endeavors he questions in his art.
For the next set of slides, have students explore Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing and Shonibare’s parody with the following kind of prompts: What do you see here? How has Shonibare adapted or changed Fragonard’s original painting? When was each made? You can help walk students through the following points: Fragonard’s painting was at a moment of French opulence and leisure: a scene about eighteenth-century sexuality in France where the female body is on display both for the voyeurs in the painting and for the viewers of the painting. Fragonard’s painting is about voyeurism, desire, control, and a burgeoning bourgeoisie.
What else was happening during this period? There was a demand for commodities, and the slave trade hit a boom after 1765 with the invention of the cotton gin in the United States, so slavery was at a peak, and French and British colonies were amassing people and places. Why and how, then, does Shonibare addressing that time? His work inserts Africa into that equation visibly. Looking at his sculptural installations, we as the viewers become explicit voyeurs, making overt that relationship that was implicit in Fragonard. Colonization is often gendered as a male force acting on a female property—like Fragonard’s lascivious male and his female object of affection—so Shonibare’s work reinforces that theme.
Now that students have made comparisons with Shonibare’s pieces, introduce them to Kehinde Wiley’s remakes, and have them start to point out similarities and differences. How do these relate to Shonibare’s work? What do you think was the motivation of the artist?
Wiley is known for his monumental paintings of contemporary African-American men painted with iconic seventeenth- to nineteenth- century European portraiture conventions and ornate backdrops. Ask your students: how has he changed and updated the paintings, and what effect does it have? How do you view his sitters? What authority does his (re)presentation imbue in them? For Ice T, have students consider why he would change the title on this piece, when he kept the other previous works’ titles more similar to the original? What effect does the shorter title have? Does it change the piece now that he acknowledges a more current sitter? Does it make Ice-T more of an icon or symbol of royalty? How might Wiley be commenting on the status of celebrities and musicians in the present? Tease this out, and let students debate the possible motivations, intentions, and effects of Wiley’s treatment.
Before introducing Abelina Galustian’s revisionist paintings, review a handful of Orientalist paintings that students may have doubt studied or seen before. Discussion questions could include: What is Orientalism? (A Western or European depiction or imitation of often imaginary aspects of East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures.) How is the Algerian or Middle Eastern female body represented in these Western paintings? Does it matter to you that some of these artists have never traveled to the places from where their subjects derive? What scenes are these male artists depicting? (These are eroticized, sensual, and private scenes painted for an audience, made to give an intimate view of a private body.)
And the effect? Similar to The Swing, they turn the viewer into a voyeur. When viewing Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Slave Market, ask such questions as: What is happening here? What can you infer simply by looking at the image and title?
Now, introduce Galustian’s Womansword series, and compare her gender-reversed paintings. What is she doing and why? Galustian’s work speaks to a tradition of French, English, and American artists who created what Linda Nochlin terms an “imaginary Orient”, as well as to the objectification and sexualization of the non-Western female body in the West.
Ken Gonzales-Day looks back at historical images in a different way than these previous artists. Gonzales-Day began examining contemporary media imagery of Latinos and attempting to know more about the origin of certain criminal stereotypes. He recognized a new form of vigilantism on the rise at the border after 9/11 and placed this trend in a history of vigilante violence.
This inquiry led him to research an often-forgotten and silenced history of lynchings in the West. He found that more Latinos were lynched in the West than any other race, and his work explores this. In his Erased Lynchings series, Gonzales-Day takes historical postcard photographs of lynchings and erases the lynched body from the photo. Explore these images with your students, asking what effect this erasure has. What do you focus on without the gruesome image of the body? Who becomes the subject of the image in the body’s absence? Does it flip the spotlight onto the audience? Who do you think bought, sold, and sent these postcards? By erasing the bodies, he shifts the focus onto both the lynch mob spectators and onto the manner in which history and popular narratives of the West have “forgotten” these events. He points to the invisibility itself, thus bringing attention by memorializing the tragedy. In doing so, Gonzales-Day asks viewers to question cultural memory.
For his series Hang Trees, Gonzales-Day visited over three-hundred lynching sites in California, using an old camera to document the remaining trees. He did so as a nod both to early landscape photography and the violence associated with westward expansion and the idea/justification of Manifest Destiny. Discuss these photographs with students in terms of composition and mood. How do they make you feel? Do you think these trees are monuments or memorials? What might they commemorate or (re)memorialize?
In his 2007 Portrait series, Gonzales-Day explored what the person being lynched might have looked like. He hired models who matched the same age and physical description as the victims of lynching at these various sites. He explained his project to them, they posed, and he set up these portraits opposite the photos of the “hang trees” in various ways—mirroring each another as if in conversation from across a gallery or superimposed digitally via Photoshop. What do you notice about these portraits? How do the portraits and sitters make you feel? As with Wiley’s sitters, there is a distinct ownership over the gaze. With these, Gonzales-Day humanizes and puts a face on the inhumane history of the past, forcing viewers to question whether those killed were indeed victim or criminal and also asking viewers to consider what someone could have done to deserve such a violent death.
Before talking about Fred Wilson’s exhibit Mining the Museum, it is helpful to discuss the history of museums a bit first. Often my students are surprised that museums do not represent an absolute and fundamental truth, and that they can contain biased narratives, constricted views, etc. I suggest opening with Walter Benjamin’s quote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Ask students to consider this statement. What does it mean? What is Benjamin referencing? Encouraging students to think about larger museums like the Louvre and the Met often helps them to consider where and how and why art has moved around the world.
What are museums? They are repositories of knowledge, they are collections, they are showcases—of art, wealth, ownership, history, and culture. What is the history of museums? Have students reflect on this. What are the origins of the modern museum?
I suggest an introductory slide of a wunderkammer, cabinets of curiosities, curio cabinets, or wonder cabinets. These arose in mid sixteenth-century Europe “as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects” (MoMA exhibit, 2008). I then suggest tying these kind of collector’s cabinets into World’s Fairs. The first World’s Fair was in London in 1756 for the purpose of showing off the wealth and technological advances of the colonies, and—in many ways—they served as a precursor to the modern museum. However, the colonial superpowers of Europe didn’t just display colonial goods, they also included people! Historian Paul Greenhalgh says, “Through this twenty-five year period it would be no exaggeration to say that as items of display, objects were seen to be less interesting than human beings, and through the medium of display, human beings were transformed into objects.”
The PowerPoint includes some possible images here, including an advertisement for human displays, a cartoon of Saartjie Baartman (known as the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman was a South African displayed in London in the nineteenth century who became a popular stereotype for the erotization of the black female body. White European audiences made fun of her and sexualized her in cartoons, yet they were simultaneously intrigued. As recently as 1994, Nelson Mandela requested her remains from France, and they were finally returned in 2002. There is also a photo of Ota Benga, a Congolese man on display at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. (This semi-recent date and display in the US often shocks students.)
Discuss Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, who said: “The Western heritage really is imposing, despite its flaws and failures. The West, in its Enlightenment enterprise, has, over the centuries, given other cultures the most devoted appreciation, or, at the very least, dedicated scrutiny. That is why anthropology and ethnology are Western disciplines, just as the museum is a Western institution. No other culture has any comparable approach to the Other in its midst.”
Now that you have introduced some question into the historical truth of museums, bring in Fred Wilson. Show a few of Wilson’s slides, or even consider showing his video lecture about the impact of Mining the Museum. What was Mining the Museum about? Judith Stein said that Wilson “takes social justices as his subject and museology as his medium.” Walter Mignolo said “he uses the museum as a point of articulation.”
In one display, Wilson featured busts of well-known historical figures on the right—Henry Clay (US Secretary of State in 1825), Napoleon (the French emperor after the Revolution), and Andrew Jackson (the seventh president of the United States). On the left, he featured empty pedestals for other historical figures—Harriet Tubman (an abolitionist whose “Underground Railroad” saved upwards of seventy slaves), Frederick Douglass (abolitionist leader, orator, author, and statesman), and Benjamin Banneker (born-free scientist and astrologer). Ask: why he would do this? What effect does this juxtaposition have? Stein explained, “By dramatizing the absence of their portraits, Wilson found a canny way to reveal the slights of history and to indicate major gaps in the museum’s collections.” Mignolo suggested “the silences, the absences—both created by white men on the right—and the discourses that justified and glorified the right men on the right and made invisible the invisible ‘torsos’ of the pedestal on the left…[create] a decolonial statement in the heart of the museum which is an imperial/colonial (and of course national) institution.”
Ask students, how does this make you feel? Fred Wilson himself has said, “I’m really interested in surprise and how one reacts on an emotional and intuitive level before the intellectual self kicks in. That synapse seems to happen best when you feel that you understand the situation that you’re involved in, and the museum setting is one where people feel that they know what to expect and how they’re supposed to act. It’s a way, once I have people disarmed, to get them to push past their comfort zone.”
On Cabinet Making 1820-1920, Stein commented, “His most dramatic tableau in the exhibition, innocuously titled Cabinet Making 1820-1910, consisted of a starkly constructed cruciform whipping post ringed by a variety of ornate Victorian chairs. A potent symbol of the horrors of slavery, the post had hibernated in MdHS furniture storage for decades (hence the irony of the classification ‘Cabinet Making’). It had last been used to punish a wife beater at the Baltimore City Jail. As I confronted Wilson’s unpeopled scenario of punishment as public spectacle, I sensed my complicity as a viewer and was discomforted, as Wilson surely intended.”
And on Modes of Transport 1770-1910, Stein continued, “Another sinister vignette couples a Ku Klux Klan hood, labeled ‘maker unknown,’ and an antique perambulator. The possible meanings are multiple. Even babies can be the object of blind hatreds. Humans are born free of prejudice, which is learned behavior.”
Fred Wilson’s seminal exhibit challenged audiences to consider the role of the museum, the idea of viewership, and the nature of complicity. How are we as viewers complicit in curatorial choices and imperialism?
Discuss Mignolo’s quote below (and featured in one of the slides) in terms of the artists from this lecture plan, and in light of the museum and art historical canon: “The decolonial option is an option and, as such, it makes evident that there is no right or natural way to define what museums shall do. Museums should offer spaces for many kinds of interpretive activity (dialoguing or contesting each other). The decolonial option displaces the ‘spectacle’ and ‘performance’ of museum exhibits and installations and brings to the foreground what ‘spectacle’ and ‘performance’ hides: coloniality, that is, the darker side of modernity of which museums are a paramount institution.”
At the End of Class...
Comparison set 1: Consider comparing and contrasting the first three artists in this section (Shonibare, Wiley, and Galustian). How does Shonibare’s work differ from that of Galustian and Wiley? Consider titles, time periods, genders, etc. What do you think the goal of each artist was and why? Explore.
Comparison set 2: Similarly, compare and contrast Wilson and Gonzales-Day. What were their goals? Were they similar? How so or why not? Both were concerned with addressing forgotten histories. How so? To what end and what effect? How does their work make you feel?
If discomfort is one of the feelings, explore and unpack this: how and why do you feel uncomfortable? Why might the artist court this reaction? Continue exploring in a similar vein with other feelings, like anger, or confusion. This could be discussion in groups during class, an in-class writing assignment, or a homework assignment.
Additionally, ask students to research and find another artist who takes existing art historical subjects and reworks them. They could do this online—via social media like Instagram, museum websites, or the rich and vast Google Cultural Institute—or in person using library books and art journals or going on gallery or museum visits. If inspired in the realm of social media, see Hallie Scott’s great post on AHTR about using Instagram for in art history surveys.
Other noteworthy artists who could be explored here include Native American artists like James Luna and Erica Lord, who are explored in the AHTR lecture Playing ‘Indian’: Manifest Destiny, Whiteness, and the Depiction of Native Americans.