Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 25, 2019
Celeste-Marie Bernier Stick to the Skin: African American and Black British Art, 1965–2015 Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. 344 pp.; 99 color ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780520286535)

This welcome new volume surveys some fifty diaspora artists working in the United States and United Kingdom and more than 150 of their works. It elaborates the author’s larger project of developing a critical bibliography that alights on both contexts and, in so doing, seeks to articulate a working “Black lexicon of liberation,” primarily by drawing on the words of (and well-chosen objects by) the artists in question. In this sense, Stick to the Skin occupies a place somewhere between textbook and sourcebook. Indeed, rather than seeking to have the final word on contemporary diaspora art, Celeste-Marie Bernier openly posits the project as a series of “jumping off points” for further inquiry. This is prescient, given the thorniness of seeking to develop a definitive survey text with such a project’s intractable elisions and exclusions.

Similarly, Bernier does not seek here to account for contemporary diaspora art in, say, Africa or Latin America; instead she attempts a more bilateral project that centers on articulations of “black” art in two geographic zones and highlights roughly fifty years of material in related but often siloed art historical frames (Black British and African American). And that is the signal virtue of Stick to the Skin—its willingness to break some of the inherited orthodoxies that insist on treating art by diaspora subjects in each country on separate terms, with their own textbooks and syllabi, and so on. The pedagogical import of Stick to the Skin is that it uses nonchronological, thematically oriented chapters to put British and American artists in dialogue around shared concerns.

In the main, there are two approaches to teaching African American or Black British art (the latter a term that includes postcolonial subjects and people of color from a range of racial or ethnic backgrounds). One is to break open a long-exclusionary canon and reconstitute the always already dialogical nature of cultural production, teaching European forms of Surrealism in the same breath as the Harlem Renaissance, say, or considering Betye Saar or Jack Whitten alongside other American assemblage artists or African and European abstract painters. The other is to insist on the specificity of diaspora art as a rubric unto itself, one with distinct countercanonical strategies and formal operations that resist inclusion in a more global survey and thus demand separate attention. Stick to the Skin plainly situates itself in this second mode, arguing that it seeks to refocus the art historical lens by developing a “new critical language“ that rejects the “mainstream whitewashing” of “black” and diasporic art.

Bernier thus wades here into an important methodological and pedagogical conversation, one actively litigated and debated over the past several decades on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, it is easier to home in on the singularities of an individual practice, but the more one starts mapping collectivities and their dissonances across a wide geographic and temporal ambit, the more frictions arise; this has been true for the numerous writers who have worked to carefully map the formation of the Black Atlantic, the emergence of black internationalisms and Black Power movements, the role of myriad formulations of queerness and feminism therein, and the ongoing discussion of the imbrication of class, race, and power in distinct social contexts. Many scholars, artists, and curators have attended to this raft of issues by delving into granular archival histories that balance theory and practice rather than trying to synthesize them all—and that’s a good thing.

Bernier cites many of these sources in due course—Hazel Carby, Huey Copeland, bell hooks, Jacqueline Francis, Krista Thompson, Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer, Rasheed Araeen, and Eddie Chambers—but does not present a novel theory of diaspora art production. Indeed, over the course of no fewer than three introductory sections (spanning thirty-nine large-format, double-columned pages), Bernier provides a broad lit-review but never fully theorizes the core contribution of the project: drawing recent African American and (black) British art into more explicit relation. Instead, Bernier notes that “the intellectual and cultural landscape confronting scholars of Black British art history versus African American art traditions could not be more different,” owing of course to the distinct lived experiences of slavery and empire. Such divergent contexts have nonetheless already been drawn together under the rubric of transatlantic slavery and its legacy as constitutive of a shared modernity (in, e.g., Paul Gilroy) and articulated in much cutting-edge scholarship over the past decade. Bernier cites one such example in Thompson, suggesting that the common bond between US and UK artists of the diaspora is “slavery and its aftermath.” This, too, seems to be the foundational framework that animates Bernier’s own project.

The most compelling aspect of the book’s opening passages is several sections that provide the reader with an overview of the state of art history in the UK and an institutional terrain that has not typically attended to its colonial and postcolonial subjects as it has to its “monocultural” (white) ones—an institutional landscape where diasporic art largely remains an oppositional force. These pages would have made an outstanding preface to a book focused exclusively on British artists, which, at times, Stick to the Skin seems to want to be. Elsewhere this project rehearses too much, at the expense of the work at hand; indeed, Bernier’s detailed bibliography is not included in this volume, and the reader is referred to a separate piece for the journal Kalfou. Including it here would have been more effective than relying on schematic introductory passages, allowing Bernier to focus on areas that demand sustained attention.

For instance, in one section Bernier notes almost parenthetically that the connections between the 1980s-era BLK Art Group in the UK and the US Black Arts Movement of the previous decade “have not thoroughly been investigated by scholars.” One wonders here why Stick to the Skin would not be precisely the opportunity for such an intervention. Still, this chapter, “Lifting, Hanging, Burning,” is based on a dynamic grouping of seemingly disparate artists, linking two sculptors from the American South and two British practitioners from the UK’s colonial matrix by way of Pakistan and Kenya.

The latter artists’ experiences elaborate the complexity of the British formulation of blackness, and its slippages with an Afrocentric or African American account of diaspora. More importantly, Bernier finds crucial points of resonance in the artists’ outlook and relation to process and materiality, effecting a dialogue unlikely to be seen elsewhere. It is a vital premise, and one animated by an art-critical prose style that draws some general conclusions while allowing the artists to speak for themselves. Each section of such chapters is illustrated in rich, full color, and Bernier productively focuses in depth on key case studies rather than tracking entire careers. Subsections dedicated to individual artists are concise and eminently readable, suffused with biographical detail suited to a general reader.

At the core of Stick to the Skin are eleven chapters, organized in this way, and a more schematic conclusion, each taking on thematic currents related to enslavement, migration, subversion, and survival. Emblematic headings include “Branded, Raped, and Beaten,” “Buried, Hidden, and Disguised,” “I Was Branded,” and “Power to the Powerless.” Bernier strikes a fine balance between artists from earlier generations and those currently on the rise, and seamlessly blends male and female artists throughout. In fact, Stick to the Skin is a compelling resource in its dedication of much of its sweep to women artists and to questions that emerge from embodied or gendered experiences that are too often overlooked. She cites the photographer Ingrid Pollard: “I know that I am not alone in being hungry for images of Black women, heroines, everyday ordinary Black women . . . ” Pollard’s is one of many trenchant voices brought into sharp relief by Stick to the Skin. On the whole, the book puts marquee and less-studied practices in proximity, and its roster includes Kara Walker, Hew Locke, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Zarina Bhimji, Frank Bowling, Joyce J. Scott, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Deborah Willis, and many others.

As Bernier observes, it is a nearly impossible task to circumscribe a canon for diaspora art, which, if anything, tends to resist the reifying force of canonicity. For all that, this is a nuanced and thoughtful set of groupings that does indeed provide a generative starting point for further investigations. To that extent, Stick to the Skin is an excellent introduction for general readers and nonspecialists and would serve many courses—African American, Black British, Black Atlantic, or global modern/contemporary histories—very well, especially at the undergraduate level. Certain histories, debates, and projects within the Black Atlantic might need supplementing with other historical and theoretical texts, but the book is nevertheless an engaging survey of artists and their work. Paired with its bibliography, titled Teaching and Truth: A UK-US “Black Lexicon of Liberation,” Bernier’s broader project is also essential reading for graduate-level seminars and exam lists, and is an important resource for any scholar working in this historical terrain.

Ultimately, Stick to the Skin is a Herculean effort of naming and contextualizing an array of vital and frequently overlooked practices and methods. Its power as an intellectual project and teaching resource is to work inductively, sidestepping theory and allowing artists’ words to elaborate the specificity of art making as a form of individual exploration and collective intervention.

Ian Bourland
Assistant Professor of Global Contemporary Art History, Georgetown University