This conversation with artists Brendan Fernandes and Aliza Nisenbaum, moderated by Joshua Cohen, Assistant Professor, African Art History, The City College of New York, revisits the work of Amedeo Modigliani through the 21st-century lens of formal and cultural appropriation. As these artists engage with layered notions of identity and incorporation of “other” subjects and elements in their own practices, they consider what is at stake in trying to inhabit a visual language or persona that is not one’s own. What prompts this gesture of identification, and how do we go about reading degrees of cultural hijacking, appreciation, or both, at once?
Joshua Cohen (B.A. Vassar College, Ph.D. Columbia University) is a historian of African art specializing in 20th-century cross-cultural exchange. His areas of interest include modernist appropriations of African sculpture; histories of West African national cultural policies and ballet performance; «primitivism» in art practice and discourse; postcolonial studies; museum studies; and global modernisms. He is the recipient of Fulbright, Lurcy, Kittredge, Dedalus, Mellon, Whiting, and other fellowships. His first book-length project tracks African and European modernist engagements with African sculpture between 1905 and 1980. A second project builds on research conducted in Guinea and elsewhere since 2002, examining international staged productions of West African dance, music, theater, and masquerade. An initial essay on Fodéba Keita and Les Ballets Africains was published in 2012.
Brendan Fernandes is a Canadian artist of Kenyan and Indian descent. He completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art (2007) and earned his MFA from the University of Western Ontario (2005) and his BFA from York University in Canada (2002). Fernandes has exhibited widely domestically and abroad, including exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Museum of Modern Art; Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal; The National Gallery of Canada, Ontario; and The Brooklyn Museum, New York. His work uses “African” objects to call authenticity into question through comparisons between the artifact and the souvenir. These comparisons bring the notion of provenance as a history of ownership into view. The ambiguousness of provenance raises questions about authenticity, and colonial authorship of histories. Where these objects are in flux and oscillate between being one thing and another, the complexities of their histories can be seen. Through these works, these objects continue to bring awareness to socio-political questions regarding neo-colonialism and identity today. Fernandes is currently Artist in Residency at Northwestern University in the Department of Art Theory and Practice.
Aliza Nisenbaum’s life and work has been deeply influenced by her trans-border upbringing. She was born and raised in Mexico City to a Russian-Mexican father and Norwegian-American mother. Her paintings in portraiture and still-life use the focused attention of observational painting to mark those who are socially unmarked in society (undocumented immigrants), along with apparently anonymous goods that constitute a transnational trade in quotidian objects such as flowers, garments, and handcrafts. Rather than view this as a primarily documentary act, her paintings introduce us to the radical interiority of her subjects by allowing them to withdraw from our gaze even as our eyes consume the patterned surfaces that enframe them. Nisenbaum holds a BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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