African Diasporic Modernism: The Far-Reaching Tropicality of Black Geographies

Speaker: Samantha A. Noël - Associate Professor of Art History, Wayne State University, Michigan

Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism examines the creative manifestations of black modernism, and explicates how tropicality functioned as a key unifying element in African Diasporic art. In this book, I argue that crucial artworks of the Caribbean modern art movement and of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as performance traditions ought not be viewed as being particular to their geopolitical parameters but rather as part of a larger African Diasporic mission. Given this reality, I contend that a discourse of internationalism existed in the realm of visual art and performance. By examining the art of Aaron Douglas and Wifredo Lam, as well as the performances of Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou and early twentieth-century Carnival masqueraders in Trinidad, I explicate how their representations of tropicalia are reflective of the unique yet complex relationship that black people of these respective regions have with the terrain they inhabit – land on which many of the enslaved ancestors labored. Despite this traumatic legacy, these creative works nonetheless show how this land is revered by their inhabitants who recognize them for their beauty, not with any intention to transform it but rather to accept it. This ideological heeding to nature should be viewed as an alternative modernity that counters the idea of transforming ‘undeveloped’ nature for the sake of capitalist expansion. In so doing, there is a particular political enterprise at stake, one that dissociates the land with the history of slavery and thereby reclaiming it. Artists such as Wifredo Lam and Maya Angelou are thus highlighting the internationalist ethos of Pan-Africanism through their visual explorations of landscapes — terrains which are mostly tropical — and are therefore geopolitically uniting areas such as the Southern United States and the Caribbean. Ultimately, this book seeks to illuminate the desire for early twentieth-century black Atlantic peoples to engender a sense of belonging to the citizenry, and a particular kind of claim to the land that they inhabit, which speaks to a desire for home.  

Samantha A. Noël is an Associate Professor of Art History at Wayne State University. She received her B.A. in Fine Art from Brooklyn College, C.U.N.Y., and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History from Duke University. Her research interests revolve around the history of art, visual culture and performance of the Black Diaspora. She has published on black modern and contemporary art and performance in journals such as Small Axe, Third Text, and Art Journal. Noël’s book, Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism (Duke University Press, February 2021), offers a thorough investigation of how Caribbean and American artists of the early twentieth century were responding to colonial and hegemonic regimes through visual and performative tropicalist representation. It privileges the land and how a sense of place is critical in the identity formation of early twentieth-century artists as well as their creative processes. Noël is working on a new book tentatively titled Diasporic Art in the Age of Black Power. This book seeks to examine the impact of the Black Power Movement on visual art as it emerged in the political, historical, and social contexts of the United States of America and the Anglophone Caribbean in the 1960s and 1970s. Noël is the 2021-2022 Smithsonian Terra Foundation Senior Fellow in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her research has also been supported by The Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Moreau Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Notre Dame. She has also received a number of grants and fellowship from Wayne State University.  

Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld) and Dr Tom Day (The Courtauld). 

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13 Dec 2021

Monday 13th December, 5.00pm - 6.30pm GMT

Free, booking essential


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Black and white photograph showing dancer Josephine Baker standing to the left of a jungle set design.
Josephine Baker in front of the set design for La Folie du Jour, La Folie du Jour Magazine, 1926.
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