AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND: Dialogic and Exhibitionary Practices of Black Contemporary Artists and Curators in Art Museums

Whitley, Zoe AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND: Dialogic and Exhibitionary Practices of Black Contemporary Artists and Curators in Art Museums. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This research seeks to better understand how Black artists experience the mainstream art museum. The thesis makes an original contribution to scholarship on curating contemporary art through qualitative analysis of subjective approaches to art museum space. It makes evident responses to institutionalised systems of address. Foundational in establishing this action research methodology (Lewin 1946; Carr & Kemmis 1986) are the dialogic frameworks provided by the theories of Mikhail Bahktin (1975), Edouard Glissant (1997), and chiefly the writing of Zora Neale Hurston (1929). It concludes that art museums can become sites of dialogic exchange (Bennett, 2006) for those who have been traditionally excluded from such spaces, though the means may be other than those formally sanctioned by the institution. Examining racial difference in museological and curatorial spheres potentially allows for multiple dialogues, referred to by Bakhtin as ‘polyphony.’

Interviews with fourteen international artists and curators suggest that critical debate around the racialisation of museum space has progressed relatively little since the 1990s, with identity politics and institutional critique having fallen out of favour in contemporary museum discourse (Bishop 2012, Haq 2014). Indeed, recent academic research into race and the art museum tends to focus on the past (Cooks 2011, Cahan 2016) or artists’ continued lack of visibility (Chambers 2015). While museum-centred research interrogates the relationship between audience and museum space (McClellan 2003; Karp et al. 2006; Bourriaud 1998; Kester 2011), little consideration has been dedicated to Black contemporary artists’ physical presence in art museums. As a critical paratext to curatorial projectsThe Shadows Took Shape and In Black and White which I co-authored, this study examines Black artists’ roles as uniquely informed generators of address (speakers) and respondents within the art museum.

Given the insular and highly specialised body of curatorial writing (Hoffmann 2013; Lind 2010; Obrist 2008; Martinon & Rogoff 2015), it is therefore proposed that studying modes of Black curatorial and artistic address can ultimately yield new translations for contemporary museum-going publics.

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