College Art Association 104th Annual Conference
Washington DC, February 3–6, 2016
Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson, Northwestern University
Submissions due to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com by May 8, 2015. Visit http://www.collegeart.org/pdf/2016CallforParticipation.pdf for CAA submission guidelines, requirements, and forms.
This conference session centers on the aesthetic, historical, and theoretical terrain opened up by the “afrotrope.” We coined this neologism as a way of referring to those recurrent visual forms that have emerged within and become central to the formation of African diasporic culture and identity in the modern era, from the slave ship icon produced in 1788 by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade to the “I AM A MAN” signs famously held up by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
As their rich afterlives make clear, afrotropes resonate widely long after their initial appearance. For instance, the “IAM A MAN” sign has served as the basis for a 1988 painting by Glenn Ligon, a sandwich board worn by Sharon Hayes during a 2005 New York street performance, and a poster wielded by protesters in Benghazi during the Arab Spring. Accordingly, our conceptualization of the afrotrope emphasizes how changes to cultural forms over time and space speak to the ways that touchstones of African diasporic history, subjectivity, and modes of resistance are produced and consumed globally by a range of actors for a variety of ends.
By homing in on the material transformation of specific afrotropes over several iterations, we hope to reframe approaches to the ways that modes of cultural exchange come to structure representational possibilities. While our theorization of the afrotrope is indebted to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s writing on black figurative turns, we also look toward the work of art historians such as T.J. Clark, George Kubler, and Christopher Wood in elaborating new models for thinking temporality, authorship, and transmission that the afrotrope at once instances and demands.
Indeed, we would argue that the afrotrope makes palpable how modern subjects have appropriated widely available representational means only to undo their formal contours and to break apart their significatory logic. At the same time, the concept enables a fresh consideration of what is repressed or absented within the visual archive. The afrotrope, in other words, offers a vital heuristic through which to understand how visual motifs take on flesh over time and to reckon with that which remains unknown or cast out of the visual field. Ultimately, the aim of our session is not only to identify key afrotropes—with an eye toward producing an edited user’s guide to these forms—but also to theorize how their transmission illuminates the visual technologies of modern cultural formation.