Beyond Recovery: Reframing the Dialogues of Early African Diaspora Art and Visual Culture, 1700-1900

Collaborative Group

Dr. Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Dr. Mia L. Bagneris


African American Studies and Art and Archaeology


Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African diasporic artists inhabited complex aesthetic and social worlds. They were involved in multiple spheres, negotiated various collective affiliations, and, most importantly, drew on a range of aesthetic genealogies. More than an exercise in recovery that merely establishes the fact and details of these artists’ existence, this project focuses on the understudied interactions among artists of African descent and their historical milieus. These artists were not simply caught between two worlds; their subjectivity was formed in, and through, the dialogues shaped by their multiple affiliations. This study illuminates the complex historical conditions of being a Black diasporic artist during this period and brings attention to how such conditions informed the work these artists’ produced. Drawing on Mia Bagneris’s interdisciplinary work on the wider contexts of racial representation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and visual culture and Anna Arabindan-Kesson’s transnational research into the intersections of Black diasporic cultural production and the visual culture of British colonial cultures, these two art historians focus on the multifaceted lives of a range of African diasporic artists that were not, solely, bound up with their racial identities. The project balances close readings of works with archival research and interdisciplinary modes of analysis to focus on specific themes—things, people, places, circuits—that contextualize the significance of these artists and their production within the networks of attachment and influence in which they were embedded. This approach allows for a deeper analysis of these artists’ aesthetic innovations alongside their participation in debates about national identity, shifting discourses about the natural world and theories of representation, as well as circuits of patronage that crisscrossed the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world. The product of Arabindan-Kesson’s and Bagneris’s collaboration will be a coauthored book that will redefine early African diaspora art history by revealing and reconsidering the varying entanglements of artists of African descent—and the art histories they have often been written out of—and offer a model for breaking new ground in the field. Award period: September 1, 2017 through August 31, 2019