Catherine Quan Damman 


History of African American Art
Fall 2020 at Wesleyan University

This course introduces students to a history of African American artistic production from the late 18th century to the present, in a range of media and styles. While we will focus primarily on the visual arts––looking at sculpture, painting, photography, collage, film, performance, and installation––we will also consider the deeply interdisciplinary nature of Black cultural production, highlighting the important role of music, poetry, dance, and theater.

We will explore how African American artists, both individually and collectively, have negotiated the terms made available to them by cultural institutions, whether by struggling for inclusion, acknowledgement, and validation; actively protesting racist and exclusionary policies; or by forming alternative institutions, communities and spaces in which to work and share support. From the Harlem Renaissance, to the Black Arts Movement, to “post-Black” exhibitions, art works will serve as a primary source to ask, is there such things as a “Black Aesthetic” and if so, how would one define it? Why might an African American artist reject such an idea? What is the role of visual representation in political struggle? How have artists mobilized portraiture as a liberatory tool? What does it mean to turn away from figuration, toward abstraction or opacity? How have artists grappled with questions of nationhood, belonging, and diaspora?

Together, we will trace how artistic forms, techniques, and motifs have served both as sites of collective history and as speculative propositions to envision alternative futures, articulating what Robin D.G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams.”
Critical Race and Art History
Spring 2021 at Wesleyan University

How does the study of art shift if we begin with questions of race, power, and colonialism, rather than treating them as secondary? Concepts such as mastery, familiarity, strangeness, taste, and beauty are formed by conditions of domination and subjugation. Moreover, the histories of material production and cultural expression are fundamentally entwined with the circuits of enslavement, forced migration, and the extraction of resources, people, goods, and “styles.”

For the bulk of the semester, we will focus on a series of case studies drawn from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, a period of intense European contact and conquest in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Topics will include: representations of Africans in Renaissance Germany; African depictions of the Portuguese circa 1492; the appearance of parrots, kraak (Chinese) porcelain, and other goods from “exotic” locales in 17th century Dutch still lifes; the taxonomies of racial difference in Spanish casta paintings; debates about sculptural polychromy and the “whiteness” of marble; the relationship between expansionism, empire, and the genre of landscape; “primitivism” and European artists’ “discovery” of African artistic forms; the critical interest in “racial art” in the interwar U.S.; and contemporary conversations about museums and restitution, among others.

Throughout, works of art are primary sources with which to study the specificities of periods, places, and their social arrangements. While we will emphasize difference and historical contingency, our longue durée approach will enable us to draw connections about art’s role in processes of primitive accumulation, dispossession, and racial capitalism.

The Work of Art Against Work: Art, Labor, Politics
Spring 2020 at Wesleyan University

How do artists conceive of––and interogate––the “work” of art today?

Understandings of late nineteenth and early twentieth century avant-gardes are tied inextricably to leftist theory, particularly that of the Frankfurt School. This advanced seminar considers the legacy of that entwinement, while attending to its transformations from the late twentieth century to the present, looking at how artists have engaged the work of art in relation to the rise of post-Fordism, deindustrialization, and a globalized economy, as well as new theories of anti-capitalism.

Animated by the possibilities of a world without work, we will consider artists’ engagement with the historically gendered division of labor (including “craft,” affective labor, domestic work, care work, sex work, and more) and issues of racial capitalism, dispossession, theft, and debt.

How do artists make work out of outsourcing their labor or infiltrating factories; selling themselves or refusing to; caring for children or receiving care when sick? We will pay attention equally to the work of trained and professionalized artists as to that of curators, docents, guards, and art handlers, and to the art and labor of the uncredentialed, unnamed, and incarcerated. Rooted in art history, this course will draw on a range of interdisciplinary methodologies, including literary, film, and performance studies, as well as the perspectives of feminist, queer, disability, and critical race theory.

What is the work of organizing and striking? Of repatriation and memory? Rest and refusal?
Techniques of the Liar: Performance, Artifice, Fraud
Spring 2019 at Wesleyan University

A cultural and intellectual history of fraudulence, fiction, and faking it.

To deride a person or phenomenon as “all a performance” is to make an accusation of artificiality or inauthenticity. How do colloquial uses of language reflect longstanding cultural suppositions, and how do connotations of performance as fakery or fabrication intersect with the actual work of performers themselves? In this interdisciplinary seminar, we will explore questions of performance, affective labor, subjectivity and self-making (and re-making), both onstage and off.

Topics  include illusion, ventriloquism, and sleight of hand, as well as mimetic acting and the manufacture of “emotion,” dance technique and the concealment of effort, and musical improvisation and the politics of invention. We consider the potent complexities of drag, camp, and minstrelsy—and historicize their surrounding discourses of fraudulence and authenticity. Looking at a range of (predominantly U.S.-based) practices from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth, this course is not a comprehensive survey, but rather, examines key episodes in the history of modern “performers.” 

We study performances found equally in everyday life, popular entertainment, and avant-garde art, and center the contributions of black, feminist, and queer studies.

Together, we will grapple with the ways that artifice and theatricality have been historically reviled as qualities inherent to femininity and queerness, respectively; the historically complex entwinement between ideas of race and authenticity; and how hiding, fabulation, exaggeration, and duplicity have been mobilized as strategies of freedom and resistance—from the spectacular escape act of Henry “Box” Brown to the sensational camp and hyperbolic glamour of the East Los Angeles art collective Asco.