Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2017
Kobena Mercer Travel and See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 384 pp.; 111 color ills. Paper $29.95 (9780822360940)

Kobena Mercer’s Travel and See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s gathers eighteen essays written in the span of twenty years, from 1992 to 2012, which offer an extraordinarily rich journey into the intellectual process of one of the most significant critics to emerge from the British cultural studies tradition in the 1980s. This is a journey of discovery and exploration of the work of artists of the black diaspora working under the sign of the “postcolonial modern,” as indexed by the collection’s very title, i.e., Travel and See, which is an inscription Mercer found on a sea vessel in Ghana. The essays are divided in five thematic and periodical sections (“Art’s Critique of Representation,” “Differential Proliferations,” “Global Modernities,” “Detours and Returns” and “Journeying”) and overall reflect a series of institutional, discursive, stylistic, and art-market shifts on both sides of the black Atlantic. These are changes that Mercer registered and sometimes anticipated while responding to an impressive number of exhibitions and artists over these twenty years.

Beginning in part 1 from the rejection of what in 1990 Mercer influentially called the “burden of representation” disproportionately affecting artists of color, and his equally influential exploration of the (visual) fact of blackness—in contributions to the journal Third Text, the 1995 exhibition Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London), and Mark Read’s collection of essays titled The Fact of Blackness (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996), each of which were key contributions to the Fanonian moment in black British cultural studies and art—the book offers a searing critique of referential models of race, representational approaches to art practice, and the expectation that work produced by artists of color should always be about particular notions of identity.

Mercer’s sustained critique of theoretical overdetermination in art criticism appears likewise in the book’s lack of dogmatism in favor of a passionately inquisitive attitude. Travel and See remains animated by an urgency invested in developing critical frames that defy entrenched dualisms between the West and the “rest,” some of which linger beneath even the seemingly most inclusive attitudes, such as the postmodern/multicultural impulse that sustained the sudden success of the Young British Artists (YBAs) and the rise to international prominence of artists such as Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, and Steve McQueen.

Given the variety of circumstances that occasioned the book’s writings, there is no grand architecture that keeps these essays together, precisely because, as Mercer explains, they occurred in medias res, thus indexing the position of the cultural critic as immanent to art’s world-making powers. His insistence on a provisionary and fully immanent art criticism, which has to respond to contingencies and cannot predict what trends might be coopted, for example, or pacified, is palpable in the experience of reading this beautifully composed book, which, by showcasing the breath of Mercer’s engagement with black diaspora art, functions in itself as an archive of journeys in which some recurring concepts function as vessels: dialogism, Afro-modernism, and diaspora, among them.

Diaspora, in particular, remains one of the guiding concepts Mercer deploys to understand not only how cultural traffic is shaped by multiple and contingent trajectories of migration but also how black innovation gives rise to white imitation. For Mercer, diaspora is an operational term, emphasizing dialogic "combinatorial propositions” (19) based on contingency but also a non-opposite relationship between context and aesthetic autonomy, form and identity. Further, diaspora describes cultural flows that are not dependent on market forces but rather manifest dialogical doubleness and therefore perform an essential critique of modernism’s dependence on purity. It also brings attention to return journeys and disseminations, alongside experiences of displacement and dépaysement (as it appears, for example, in the art of Renée Green). The imagery of proliferation and transportation (of materials, languages, sensibilities, and so on) in part 2 vividly frames the work of Keith Piper, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Isaac Julien, and Shonibare as a series of “interruptive practices” that reconfigure Western art-historical conversations while also disentangling the black body from the discourses of otherness that have so consistently framed it.

Although it may be feasible to sketch a fairly straightforward narrative that identifies the 1980s as defined by a struggle for identity politics, the 1990s as characterized by a backlash against it, and the 2000s as the time of championing “visible” difference in the name of an internationalist inclusionism that produced a “hyperblackness” as a masquerade for performing cultural expressions of otherness ultimately detached from politics, Mercer instead draws attention to a more profound dialogism taking place throughout all these phases. In this sense, his periodization is closer to Stuart Hall’s understanding of the “posts” of the postcolonial, postmodern, and, Mercer adds, “post-black” (of which he is inexplicably skeptical) as indexing a series of “turns” that do not express an accomplished resolution of previous tensions or dilemmas. Rather, “post” indexes a “double inscription” that breaks down previously clearly demarcated distinctions, and embraces instead a deconstructive logic directed toward whatever the “post” attaches to. Ultimately, for Mercer, contemporary art conveys a sense of a life “experienced as a state of aftermath” (32), as expressed, for example, in the re-memory of colonial trauma that happens in the work of the Black Audio Film Collective, where the condition of aftermath is rendered as a series of hauntings and constitutive absences, expressed through what Mercer consistently describes as “acts of signifying indirection” (277) (given his preference for a nonreferential understanding of race).

Against the endemic presentism dependent on a dehistoricized concept of difference that characterizes the reception of diasporic work since the late 1990s, Mercer instead consistently shows the recurrence of dialogic cultural and artistic exchanges that occurred throughout Western modernity. To this aim, several essays in the middle section of the book, and particularly in part 3 (“Global Modernities”) and part 4 (“Detours and Returns”), are devoted to clarifying some of the terms of engagement with black diaspora art in the aftermath of an increasingly global visual culture that can, for example, suddenly circulate portrait photography in colonial Africa under very different auspices in Francophone and Anglophones contexts. This fact, he argues, requires a deeper understanding of the politics of interpretation of artifacts as we now encounter and appreciate them in the different context of art. It further requires a clarification of the important but often neglected difference between modernism, modernity, and modernization, so that it becomes possible, for example, to understand the relationship between African photographers and their subjects as an expression of Afro-modernity as a two-way cultural traffic that best describes the articulation of self-fashioned modern subjects.

Indeed, the concept of Afro-modernity, in part gleaned from Manthia Diawara’s writings, and of the “colonial modern” are part of what Mercer also calls the “multiple modernities thesis,” i.e., the idea that the West was always haunted, contaminated, and shaped by Africa and that, as David Morley has argued, modernity could be welcome outside the West without implying a welcoming of the West. Ultimately, Mercer argues, “By configuring the differential combinations of modernization and modernity in specific conjunctures of the global, we may move toward a more rendered view of modernism as a world-making practice that was always already driven by cross-culturality” (261).

Mercer defines his approach as fundamentally “cultural materialist” and often insists on “visual culture” as an overarching methodology (in particular as an outgrowth of cultural studies’ sensibilities as applied to the object of art history), with dialogism as a lens and Black diaspora aesthetics as the primary object. Yet, the book employs a number of contingent methodologies that stem necessarily from the preoccupations of the works he discusses. The book’s early parts, for example, employ a fundamentally Foucauldian framework of genealogical analysis to describe a series of excavatory counter-practices: Fred Wilson’s and Green’s institutional critiques, for example, or Fani-Kayode’s use of the nude to deploy the black body as a tool for critical interruption. Mercer here includes Julien’s “avid iconographies” (129) with their profound intercultural entanglements and complex trajectories of identification, fantasy, and desire that express themselves also in the heterophilic cosmopolitanism that enthrones Shonibare’s “marvelously pliable found object,” (150) i.e., the Dutch wax fabric.

Throughout Travel and See Mercer’s engagement is in a process of conjunctural becoming, as are the ideas of “diasporic” and “hybrid” identities Mercer upholds throughout. No definitive closure is available or even desirable, but instead what is presented is an ethics of journeying that ultimately manifests itself as a commitment to a formal and aesthetic reading strategy of the work, which defends against the possibility that it would be hijacked, or explained away, by issues of identity politics. Ultimately, and consistently, one of the most enduring traits of Mercer’s writing is his attention to complex, and at times contradictory, trajectories and expressions of fantasy and desire, including those that belong to the critical discourses within which art is understood and recognized.

Alessandra Raengo
Associate Professor of Moving Image Studies, School of Film, Media & Theatre, Georgia State University