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Now & Then, Here & There: Black Artists and Modernism – London Conference

06 Oct-08 Oct 2016

This two-day conference addressed the understated connections and points of contention between Black-British artists’ practice and the work of art’s relationship to Modernism

How do artists of African and Asian descent in Britain feature in the story of twentieth-century art?

The implied oversight has been highlighted in Kobena Mercer’s ‘Iconography after Identity’ (2005), where he suggests that an art historical amnesia prevails in relation to Black-British art; of forgetting the art object in favour of discussions about ethnicity and identity politics. The result of this focus, Mercer argues, inevitably deflects attention away from the work of art.

An urge to reassess the legacies of Black-British artists’ practice in the twentieth century and beyond has led to the posing of several questions. Not least among them, questions that turn our attention to the varied forms of production throughout that period: ‘How do we come to know the work of art?’ Conversely, ‘How do we come to forget the work of art?’ In its primary formulation, this forms the basis of an epistemological inquiry, situated within the disciplinary framework of art history.

Associated discourses, such as museology, curatorial studies and documentary studies will also be marshalled to develop trans-disciplinary tools to pursue this central inquiry.

As an organising principle, the conference will look at the temporal (across generations of practice) and the spatial (narratives of the transnational), as crucial frames to the story of twentieth-century art.

This two-day conference will address the understated connections and points of contention between Black-British artists’ practice and the work of art’s relationship to Modernism.

The Keynote Address will be given by Professor Kobena Mercer, Professor of History of Art and African-American Studies at Yale University. Mercer’s recent work, Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices Since the 1980s (Duke University Press, 2016), provides the ground for conference discussion. In this book, Mercer argues that there has been an over-emphasis on ethnicity and identity politics in the work of Black artists. This has meant that attention has been shifted away from the actual artwork that they have produced. The conference will provide an opportunity to explore more fully the claims that an art historical amnesia prevails in relation to Black-British art. Does such amnesia amount to a forgetting of artistic objects? Has a re-statement of social issues been a distraction away from aesthetic concerns?

Conference debate will touch on: art practice, curatorial studies, critical writing, documentary studies, art history and museology.

Conference activity will include exhibition visits to: ‘Now! Now!’ in more than one place’ (curated by Sonia Boyce at the Cookhouse Gallery). Events will take place across Tate Britain and Chelsea College of Arts, UAL, within London’s Millbank cultural quarter.

Speakers will include:
Maria Fusco
Prof. Paul Goodwin
Permindar Kaur
Dr. Dorothy Price
Prof. Courtney J. Martin
Prof. Kobena Mercer (Keynote)
Vong Phaophonit and Claire Oboussier
Dr. Sophie Orlando
Prof. Irit Rogoff
Zoe Whitley

The conference and its related events have been produced by Black Artists & Modernism (BAM) in association with Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts).

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