Kobena Mercer, "What Is African Art to Me?"

Professor Kobena Mercer will be discussing how encounters with African art transformed the self-perception of New Negro artists in the 1920s and 1930s—particularly, why did they choose still life as the genre in which to explore the rebirth of identity? Through the lens of the Harlem Museum of African Art envisioned by critic Alain Locke, this lecture reframes the narrative about modernism’s cross-cultural origins. Taking a fresh look at exhibition histories, institutional politics, and iconographic choices it sheds new light on the asymmetries surrounding the rise of a diasporic outlook in African American art.


Kobena Mercer is Professor of History of Art and African American Studies at Yale University. His first book, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (1994), was followed by monographic studies on Isaac Julien, Keith Piper, James Van Der Zee, and Romare Bearden. He is editor of the Annotating Art’s Histories series, published by MIT, whose titles are Cosmopolitan Modernisms (2005), Discrepant Abstraction (2006), Pop Art and Vernacular Culture (2007) and Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers (2008), and Mercer contributed a survey of contemporary African American, Caribbean, and Black British artists to The Image of the Black in Western Art (2014). An inaugural recipient of the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing, awarded by the Clark Art Institute, following his recent essay collection, Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s (2016),  Mercer edited and introduced Stuart Hall’s hitherto unpublished Du Bois Lectures, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation (2017). This event is generously supported by the Office of the Dean at the Tyler School of Art.