Uchenna Itam

Kobena Mercer’s recently-published collection of writings Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s highlights his fundamental role in building an interpretive framework to contextualize the creative originality that African-American and black British and Caribbean artists infused in contemporary art with their critique of race and representation at the end of the twentieth century. The book’s title comes from a proverb Mercer saw inscribed on a boat on a Ghanaian beach and conveys an outward-focused discourse, way of being, and artistic practice that embraces inquisitive thinking through exploration, investigation, and experimentation. The maritime theme echoes Paul Gilroy’s use of ship imagery to describe a fluid, hybrid black-transatlantic cultural identity shaped by the history of racial slavery and colonialism that is both integral and internal to modernity. Similarly, Mercer casts cross-cultural and transnational black diaspora artists as being central to our moment, declaring in the book’s first sentence that they “led the way in shaping the critical terrain on which contemporary art was redefined.”[1]

A valuable resource for building a historiography of modern and contemporary African diaspora visual arts, Travel & See includes eighteen texts first published as exhibition catalogue essays, book chapters, and journal articles between 1992 and 2012. More than 100 color illustrations accompany the writing, which is organized into five parts, each subtitled and prefaced with a brief introduction. Nearly half of the book’s pages are devoted to monographic studies on artists Keith Piper, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Isaac Julien, Yinka Shonibare, the Black Audio Film Collective, Renée Green, Kerry James Marshall, and Hew Locke. These close readings on specific practices are complemented by broader reflections on photography, concepts of modernity, adverse reactions to identity politics, and the multicultural normalization phase of globalization, as well as by writings on the writing of black diaspora art.

Travel & See continues Mercer’s use of diaspora theory and dialogical methods of analysis to examine the politics of ethnicity, sexuality, and race as in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (1994), which was devoted to 1980s film, photography, and visual art. Building on this body of dialogic diaspora-based writing, the texts in Travel & See demonstrate a materialist approach that calls attention to the rapidly changing facets of globalization that made issues of race and ethnicity more visible in recent contemporary art history. The book adds to Mercer’s already extensive bibliography, which dates back to the early 1990s and includes articles; essays; monographic and historical studies; and the four-volume Annotating Art’s Histories series, implementing a globalized approach to modernism, which he initiated, edited, and published from 2005 to 2008.

Part I of Travel & See features two catalogue essays Mercer wrote in the early 1990s for group shows of work by African-American, black British and Caribbean artists whose “excavationary impulse”-driven practices worked to dismantle simplified representations of race.[2] Mercer describes the installation work of artists like Fred Wilson and Renée Green as “passionately genealogical” Foucauldian counterpractice in the way it exposes the white European hegemonic intersections of racial and spatial discourse in museums while simultaneously reimagining their potential social functions.[3] He also credits black diaspora artists’ uses of psychoanalytic theory for revealing the underlying “fear/fantasy formulation” behind stereotypical representations of race and sexuality, thereby initiating the deconstruction of fixed ideas about identity.[4]

Part II presents Mercer’s monographic writings from the late 1990s and early 2000s that examine how the “interruptive” artistic practices of Keith Piper, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Isaac Julien, and Yinka Shonibare engage with traditional Western visual representations of race and sexuality in order to alter real life perceptions of the black male subject.[5] Journal articles on Yinka Shonibare and Keith Piper’s strategic use of archival material in their Dutch wax print fabric and computer-generated image-text installations, respectively, offer new ways of seeing the intersections of ethnic and national identities as well as art and politics in past and present British culture. Written early in Mercer’s career, these texts also appear at the beginning of his Goldsmith’s colleague Shonibare’s career and well into Piper’s, offering a glimpse of a network of black British artists and thinkers working simultaneously on a visual arts project to change the way the black male body is seen. Mercer’s essay on a set of photographs Rotimi Fani-Kayode made with his white partner Alex Hirst seeks to recuperate the work from racist homophobic discourse by demonstrating how it exists within a history of interculturation with threads stretching from colonial Africa to the Harlem Renaissance, and how the use of masks reflects back—and protects the artist from—fetishistic gazes.[6] Similarly, Mercer describes Isaac Julien’s recurring use of interracial male couples in historically-based films as a “swerve,” yet another way black diaspora artists redirect our usual ways of seeing material culture in order to dismantle “othering” racializing codes of representation.[7]

Mercer returns to his monographic writing in Part V, the end of the book, to highlight black diaspora artists’ innovative use of the archive to represent and confront violent past trauma. Of especial note is an essay he contributed to the first book published on the work of Black Audio Film Collective, in which he credits the influential British artist group for addressing the unreliability of the colonial archive through their use of experimental methods, like mixing archival footage with multiple voice-over narration, and calling attention to the inability of official records to testify to the “unknowable,” the private memories and individual experiences of diaspora shaped by colonialism.[8] And in the first monograph devoted to Renée Green, Mercer describes how her conceptual practice considers site specificity as an inherent characteristic of the archive and how she addresses the impossibility revisiting the transatlantic slave trade by reactivating sites through the layering of historical research and present-day lived experience in a pattern of “‘returns’” that simultaneously evoke a state of dépaysement (the feeling of not being in your home country) and a freedom of movement.[9]

Mercer acknowledges the male bias of these monographic writings and credits black feminists with introducing intersectionality as a theoretical framework upon which many black diaspora artists based their critique of the representation of race at this time; yet influential thinkers like Michelle Cliff, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and bell hooks as well as artists such as Lorna Simpson and Lorraine O’Grady are only briefly mentioned. For emerging scholars, then, there is opportunity to research and write about the significant role black feminist thought and practice played in reconceptualizing contemporary art and art history at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries.

The third section of Travel & See turns away from individual artist studies to explore how black diaspora artists have used photography to construct and represent self-identity, as well as how their appropriation of the medium changed ideas of modernity as a single, if heterogeneous, situation to conceptions of it as an always diverse and varied phenomenon. In an exhibition catalogue essay from 1995, Mercer considers 1940s and 1950s West African studio portrait photography (specifically, the first show of Seydou Keïta’s and Mama Casset’s work in the United Kingdom) alongside 1990s self-portraits by black British artists to point out how the medium, history, and circulation of photography reflects the making of modern black diaspora subjects with shared histories and multiple living experiences of cross-cultural encounters. In an essay published six years later, as African photography continued to grow in popularity, Mercer provides an overview of the changing role of the medium over time, from portraiture to photojournalism to artistic practice. He evaluates different geographic and individual research models from the late 1990s—the Francophone initiation of primary research, the Anglophone focus on “the cultural politics of aesthetic interpretation,” and Okwui Enwezor’s and Olu Oguibe’s situating of African photography as drastically changing, as well as being a constitutive facet of, the history of Western photography—to demonstrate how African photography has been defined by its evolving social and cultural use as a tool of colonialism that was then appropriated by African and black diaspora subjects.[10]

The book also includes texts in which Mercer describes the conflicting consequences of globalization on black-diaspora artistic practice, exhibition, and reception in the 1990s. On the one hand, Mercer describes the Young British Artist (YBA) phenomenon as expressing a “backlash” against identity politics and describes its evolution from a London-centered aesthetic to an internationally-exported official ideology by way of international art fairs and marketplace branding.[11] The contemporaneous failure to create a black arts center—which led to the eventual establishment of the Institute of International Visual Arts (INVIA)—on the other hand, demonstrates how adverse reaction to the multiculturally-inclusive exhibition model of the 1990 led to a corporatization under which the conversation about “matters of representation crucial to the articulation of aesthetics and politics throughout twentieth century art movements” was subsumed and quiet.[12] Mercer presents his review of Documenta 11 as further evidence of how “multicultural normalization” influenced black diaspora artists, arguing that despite the biennial’s eagerness for inclusion, its uneven curatorial practices exposed fissures in its attitude toward art and politics.[13]

In Part IV, Mercer presents his writing on writing a black diaspora art history. He opens with an essay that traces the development of diaspora theory in Stuart Hall’s body of work, a project that compares with that of Travel & See. What would be gained, I wonder, if another scholar had edited Mercer’s book and contributed the introductions? While Mercer allows himself moments of self-reflection, an outside perspective on the development of his dialogic, diaspora-based approach to writing art history could provide greater insight into its twists and turns and how Mercer’s thoughts and methods have evolved in conversation, or even conflict, with other thinkers in the field. Mercer’s essay suggesting that the preeminence of sight relative to other bodily senses explains why black diaspora art’s relationship with the mainstream narrative of modern art has been disregarded also stands out as an opportunity for future scholarship. And finally, the book features texts calling for a cross-cultural approach to historicizing twentieth century modernism and a globalized approach to contemporary curatorial practices.

Travel & See is an essential addition to any art historian’s library. These texts played an instrumental role in promoting and historicizing contemporary black diaspora art as well as in establishing a theoretical framework and developing dialogic, diaspora-based approaches to the field of art history. The volume is especially beneficial for emerging scholars, for whom the legwork of compiling a comprehensive bibliography of Mercer’s most important work is now that much easier. The collection also serves as an inspiration: Mercer’s commitment to producing substantial scholarship on individual artists is how he is able to confidently support a claim that black diaspora art practices since 1980 pioneered critical innovations that changed contemporary art at the turn of the twentieth century.

With Travel & See, Mercer further establishes himself as a leading figure in the field while also modeling the type of work that still needs to be done. The volume shows how Mercer’s writing redefined contemporary art history just as much as it shows how black diaspora artists changed contemporary art.

Uchenna Itam is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin and founding member of the curatorial collective INGZ.





[1] Kobena Mercer, Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices Since the 1980s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016) 1.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 42.

[4] Ibid., 50.

[5] Ibid., 87.

[6] Ibid., 98.

[7] Ibid., 130.

[8] Ibid., 282.

[9] Ibid., 294.

[10] Ibid., 174.

[11] Ibid., 156.

[12] Ibid., 192.

[13] Ibid., 194.