International conference breaks new ground

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Arts Sciences Communications
Thu, 12/01/2016

More than 500 scholars, artists and activists from around the world gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa Nov. 17-19 for “Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures,” an annual conference about imaging the black body and the current state of the field of African, African Diaspora and African American art and art history. Cheryl Finley, associate professor of history of art and visual studies, was a principle organizer of the conference; the history of art department was a sponsor. 

“As in years past, this edition of Black Portraiture[s] promises to break new ground in the fields of art history, Africana Studies and fine art criticism,” said Finley and fellow conference organizer Deborah Willis in their opening remarks. “This year, we are energized more than ever about this important gathering of artists, scholars and intellectuals dedicated to a field that has in recent months received unprecedented media attention and growing support from museums, galleries and collectors.”

Cheryl Finley and Deborah Willis at the podium
Opening remarks at Turbine Hall by (left to right) Deborah Willis and Cheryl Finley

The State Department was also a supporter of the event, and Patrick Gaspard, United States Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, offered opening remarks.

“Black erasure was the original sin in the compilation of the historic record in the sciences and arts…” said Gaspard. “I’m certain that the concentrated scholarship [at this conference] will confront many of the contradictions that abound in the United States and Africa, and summon us to the notion once more that the black body itself continues to be the ultimate site of memory.”

Cheryl Finley with Ambassador Gaspard and others
From left to right: Cheryl Finley, Ambassador Gaspard, Dr. Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis at reception at the US Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa.

With more than 150 panelists from five continents, topics presented at the conference ranged widely, addressing global issues such as the art market, new museums in Africa and the Middle East, the biennial effect, art and activism, the sexual politics of art exhibition, the state of criticism, and the fashion industry. Finley moderated two sessions, "On Place: Cultural Tourism," and "Film, Writing, and Portraits." Kanitra Fletcher, a Cornell graduate student in the field of history of art, gave a talk entitled “Strategically Strange: From Black Female Iconicity to Eccentricity” in the “Imaging the Black Female Body” session.