The Relationship Between Knowledge and Power in Art History: In Conversation with Samantha Noel

Dr. Samantha Noel is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Wayne State University whose research interests revolve around the history of art, visual culture and performance of the Black Diaspora, as well as modern and contemporary art of the Americas. She has published on black modern and contemporary art and performance in journals such as Small Axe, and Third Text. Noel’s current book manuscript, Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism (Duke University Press, forthcoming), examines black modernism in the early twentieth century, particularly how tropicality functioned as a unifying element in African Diasporic art and performance.

What originally led you to a career in art history? Did you have your own artistic practice?

I was an art major in college, I went to Brooklyn college in the CUNY system in New York City, and I was a painting major and studied under William T. Williams, who was an iconic abstract African-American artist. He started professionally in the 1960s during the Black Arts Movement. And I had the privilege of being one of his students, I took his first course and just fell in love with it, he was such an amazing teacher. But then when it came closer to graduation I had to consider whether the prospects of being an art student with a concentration in painting, if that was feasible. I was still not entirely sure if I wanted to go into the direction of being a professional artist/teacher. And then I took my first art history course, it was one of those requirements and I begrudgingly took it, and I had another amazing teacher and I fell in love with it. I realized that I always had a love of history and was also curious about it, and I always loved art–because in Trinidad in high school we didn’t have art history courses–it was like a whole new world opened up to me. Immediately I think she realized, in addition to myself, that I was able to analyze art and objects, and I didn’t know I had a knack for it–that ability to see an image, the visual, and interpret it using language. 

Had you already been writing prior to that as well?

I always wrote. Especially I think with the education system we had in Trinidad, it mirrors the education of some of Great Britain because we were a British colony, and so you learn very early on how to analyze information. You take this exam when you’re sixteen, and then when you’re eighteen, and it’s in essay form, it’s not a standardized test like in the U.S., so you learn very early on how to analyze information, I was taught how to write and how to express myself in language. But I always loved history, and I had some really great teachers in high school, and of course being in Trinidad in a post-colonial society, it is very much oriented around a lot of pioneer scholars, who wrote in an effort to critique and counter the predominant narrative of the scholars of, “the mother country.” What we learned in history and social studies was to look at our history, and learn about our history from the perspective of the oppressed, to learn that we were able to overcome obstacles and gain emancipation from slavery, gain independence from colonialism. 

Also growing up in the house that I grew up in, my parents were definitely young and very much inspired by that pan-Africanist sensibility, and ways of experiencing the world. And so I grew up in that environment and it certainly had an impact on the person and scholar I am.

I get the impression that growing up in Trinidad, and the way you are speaking about what you learned in high school, did you already have a more educated awareness of the knowledge/power relationship then in the U.S. where it seems maybe like most American students don’t start thinking critically about the curriculum they are being taught until college.

In retrospect when I have conversations with people I went to school with, or people who are the same generation as myself who grew up in Trinidad, I think it sort of depends on your sense of being inquisitive and curious. For me, I have always been inquisitive, I have always been asking questions. I did have friends and acquaintances who were like me and questioned and wondered and thought about history. But I don’t think everybody is like that, because depending on who you are, and your life goals, and the family you come from, you’re not necessarily thinking about the social and historical and cultural, but I remember there were definitely a few of us in high school who had that curiosity, and maybe even a greater awareness, and a greater desire to question and wonder about these things. 

So I can see it as sort of a mainstream thing maybe to a certain extent, because with Trinidad being part of the black diaspora where the majority of the population is non-European– I think when you grow up in these majority black societies and you listen to your parents, and particularly my generation and my parents’ generation coming into themselves during the ‘60s, I have a unique perspective because of my curiosity and love of history– I don’t know if it’s necessarily something that is quite predominant in the Caribbean, I mean maybe moreso, because your experience as a black person in a majority black country is different, especially with a completely different history, similar history of colonization, but different outcome and different demographic, so it is different.

I’m also realizing that my question is very situated in me being a white person, I think if I were a person of indigenous descent that maybe I would grow up already being more aware that the history I’m being fed in school doesn’t line up with my reality. 

So you go to high school in Trinidad and then move to New York for undergrad?

I went to New York, I have family here and wanted to be in New York too, be in the art center of the world. And so I wanted to go and live in New York and be in that energy and that space. The plan was to go back to Trinidad, and of course things never work out the way you think they expect them to. I was kind of recruited, I was at Brooklyn College Honors Academy and so they encouraged us to pursue graduate degrees and so I applied through this program at Phillips Academy in Andover, it’s called the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers. The program is set up actually by a teacher at Phillips Academy who wanted to at least try to rectify what he saw was a lack of diversity amongst faculty in higher education, and he’s actually European American, but he was very passionate and he was able to pool resources and gain funding to encourage and provide systems of support for students were interested in pursuing Master’s and Ph.D. programs. It was like this summer program where you were there for a month and there were these faculty members who were actually like graduate students or recent Ph.D.s who were actually the alumni of the same program themselves and come back to teach. So we got exposed to the kind of coursework and reading materials in graduate school and they helped us with the application process and advised us on which schools we should apply to. I decided to go to Duke, and went straight from a Bachelor’s Degree in studio art, we only took three art history classes, and started a Ph.D. in art history.

But do you think the studio art background also gave you any kind of advantage compared to people in the program coming from art history backgrounds, that you had a different kind of perspective?

I think in retrospect I realized that I did, but in terms of taking coursework and reading like a book a week in each course, it never necessarily helped me in that regard. I think now I look back, but even now as I teach, as I do my research and I write, it does have to have a true appreciation and knowledge and awareness of the creative process. So I don’t take it for granted, I really do value my education because I had three professors at Brooklyn College, and many of them were connected to the big artists of the New York art movement, so just to hear their stories and be under their tutelage, I learned a lot and it really does help me. It still has an impact on my teaching, especially when you have students who are art majors and design majors, I try to find ways to help them think about the creative process and being in the studio and thinking about creating a work of art. It helps me kind of pull them in.

It seems like it’s best if both programs are intertwined, like studio art majors have to take art history classes, and art history students have to take studio courses.

I agree, at least one. There are programs that do make that a requirement but not a lot unfortunately. I think it’s that unfortunate hierarchy in the art world and academia in terms of art historians and art critics being seen as having a greater command and authority in terms of knowledge of the artistic process or art history or art criticism, I think that’s something that has been historically accepted, and not holding in high regard the voice of the artist, and the knowledge of the artist. Because MFA students are reading texts in their studio courses, because how else are you supposed to critically develop yourself as an artist, it’s by writing and talking about your work.

I think that is really unfortunate, within art history discipline, but also in the entire sort of academic and professional art world. But I think some of that is changing. I think there are these slow sort of changes and transitions and shifts that are happening in academia, for instance Yale’s Art History Department is eliminating their Survey of Western Art. These changes need to happen because they are just maintaining the hierarchy not only within the art world in general in terms of art historian/artists, but even within the discipline of art history. 

It’s an effort to decolonize the curriculum?

That’s the impression I get. Even I think there are certain words that are very problematic and even marginalizing, but there is this new trend in the positions that are new positions that are advertised at a school in an effort to decolonize, for contemporary art they’ll use a term like “global contemporary art” and prior to these recent trend that started happening a couple years ago they would look for specialists in different areas of Western art and then they would look for an Asian art specialist or an African art specialist or what have you, but now I think it’s really problematic with this global contemporary art position that keeps popping up, because it marginalizes the people who do non-Western art even more, regardless of time period or geographic area, because if there is a greater tendency of looking at the global contemporary people they may just decide to focus on one geographical area than another, and I think there’s something really problematic about that. The non-West is bigger than the West in terms of population and geographic scale.

You’re still getting someone who is situated in one specific cultural perspective and mapping that onto the rest of the globe. Can you tell me about the book you are working on?

It’s called Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism. It’s coming out next winter, it’s a labor of love. In the book I examine early twentieth century visual artists and performers of the Black Atlantic and I argue that all of these artists and performers, what connects and links their were these various representations of tropicality and the tropical landscape, and I argue that these are essentially articulations of pan-Africanism, like physical, or embodied articulations of pan-Africanism. So I look at Aaron Douglas, who was an Harlem Renaissance muralist. I focus for two chapters on visual art and then two chapters on performance and so I look at early twentieth century carnival in Trinidad and then I also have a chapter on the early or first Paris performances of Josephine Baker which she did at the FoliesBergère. And then I also look at Maya Angelou’s calypso and cabaret performances, in particular I study a few songs of her calypso album, her very brief performance career before she went into writing.

When did “tropicality” come into existence as a term and what defines it?

I never really was aware of that term, I was familiar with terms like tropicalization, but the study of tropicality isn’t really that popular and prevalent in American academia, it’s actually prevalent in European academia, and particularly I guess because of the histories of colonization, and scholars from Western Europe and Northern Europe and England I think wanting to study the perceptions that Europeans had of the tropical other, the colonial other. But thinking of that interesting relationship between the landscape, the perceptions of these natives, and the terrain that they inhabited. I’m not exactly sure when it first came to use, but the first major scholars that studied tropicality were people like David Arnold, his book came out in the early nineties– one could see tropicality study as branching off of postcolonial studies, and definitely within the rubric and umbrella of postcolonial studies, but kind of connected to orientalism. It’s very much rooted in the amazing contributions of Edward Said. 

Essentially tropicality looks at the perception that Europeans had, particularly when they first ventured to the tropical parts of Africa and the Caribbean, and on one hand they would like at these terrains and the foliage and flora and fauna that they were unfamiliar with as being idyllic, kind of like a tropical Eden. It was so different from what they had seen before with the lush greens and animals and so forth, and then also the subtropical parts of the United States, except there the focus was on swampland areas. 

But in terms of the Europeans and the studies by these scholars, they were working in an effort to justify colonization, and to justify certain claims that these “exotic others” of tropical parts of the world–one of the reasons why they considered savage, and degenerate, and morally lax, and sexually perverse was because of the warm temperatures, the environment, it contributed to their ways of life–it was one of the ways in which the Europeans chose to validate and justify colonization. 

It was used to justify slave trade. Convicts who were first sent to the colonies to work the land couldn’t survive there, after the First Nations peoples who lived in the Caribbeans died out, it was pretty much a genocide, European settlers started looking to convicts and even working class Europeans who were looking at a new chance, a new opportunity, but they couldn’t survive laboring in those fields and plantations, and they justified that one of the reasons why was because of the land and being impossible for them to thrive in it because it doesn’t provide the perfect conditions for civility. Not only were people othered, but even the terrain was othered as threatening to the well-being of people, that it encouraged moral laxity and laziness. It was a way of seeing the tropical areas as the antithesis of the temperate part of the world.

Do the courses you teach relate at all to the research you did for the book?

I teach modern and contemporary art, physical art and performance, and they do relate to my research interests in a lot of ways, they are a reflection of things I’ve written about, but more expansive. I teach a survey course on African art, because I’m quote-unquote non-Western even though I focus on people of the black diaspora in the Americas. And that is one of the problematic things I think about, how various fields within in the discipline are categorized, I feel like non-European artists are ghettoized and excluded, because they are not even part of the canon, so instead of acknowledging Latinx people as American, African-Americans, Asian-Americans as American, you just have a specialist in African-American art and Latinx American art. So it will often end up sort of being thrown into non-Western fields and it really is unfortunate. Often times we have a specialist who either specializes in African and African diasporic art, but people don’t perceive the Caribbean as Western even though we are in the Western hemisphere. But that’s why those terms are so problematic, we really know that “west” is just a coded word for European, and Eurocentric. It’s a very elitist and Eurocentric discipline, and we talk about it as art historians who don’t focus on European and American art. These are things that need to be considered and changed. Changes are happening but still the powers that be remain in power and that will be reflected in the curriculum of all art history courses.




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