As the History of Art Department’s non-Western requirements come under fire this semester, the department is continuing an effort to emphasize a more globalized approach to the study of art.
This fall the department hired two new professors with backgrounds in African diaspora art: Erica James, founding director and chief curator of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, and former New York University professor Kobena Mercer. Professor Timothy Barringer, who helped in the hiring of James and Mercer — both of whom have dual designations in the history of art and African-American studies programs — said the new instructors contribute geographically varied perspectives on African art.
“We had been searching for a while to find the right people,” history of art professor David Joselit said. “We had one of the first faculty teaching African-American art; we had a good reputation for training leaders in that field. It’s super exciting that we will again assume a real leadership role in thinking about the black Atlantic.”
James, who received her doctorate in art history from Duke University, has a background in Caribbean and African-American art. She is currently writing a book based on her doctoral thesis titled “Re-Worlding a World: Caribbean Art in the Global Imaginary.”
Mercer’s work deals largely with issues of race, sexuality and identity in contemporary art. He received his doctorate from Goldsmiths’ College in London.
Hiring James and Mercer, Joselit said, will help the department lead the discussion about the black Atlantic and will enrich how art historians in the department think about the Americas as an artistic amalgam of influences from Britain, the Caribbean, Africa and the United States.
Mercer and James’ expertise will also add to the department’s culture of collaboration across specialties, Barringer said, adding that it is not unusual for a professor of Indian art, an Islamicist and a European art specialist to engage in a discussion about colonial Indian art.
“All good, big [university] departments have non-Western fields, but the strength in our program is that the fields are not separate,” Barringer said. “[Yale] is special in the level of integration and discussion.”
Mercer, who is teaching a graduate seminar on cross-cultural issues in contemporary art, said that historicizing art from a global perspective is an area of study that has opened up in recent years. While contemporary art necessitates an international approach, historical art periods have not always been compared across cultures.
As for further hires, Barringer said the department is searching for a Chinese art specialist, as the last moved to a different university. Architecture, whether global or historical, is also a priority in developing the department’s curriculum, he said.
Barringer said he hopes offering more courses in non-Western fields will also direct student interest toward these areas. Western art is often the first area students gravitate toward, but by offering three survey courses at any one time, with one in a non-Western culture such as this year’s Buddhist art class, Barringer said that students might become interested in more unfamiliar areas of art history.
The art history department is offering three courses this fall in African-American art.