Charmaine Nelson: Writing Back Black in Art and History

“Portrait of a Negro Slave” by Francois Malepart de Beaucourt, 1786, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

I admit, I struggled for a while about pursuing Art History as a major.  Not only do I get weird quips from friends and family—“You wanna starve the rest of your life?!”—the ultra-conservative, white, male-dominated discipline is enough to murder my coloured-girl dreams of interpreting, and writing about art and visual culture.  Enter the incomparable and passionate Charmaine Nelson of McGill University.  After seeing her lecture earlier this year at the University of British Columbia, reading a number of her works and interviewing her—she talks fervently with concise articulation at about 1000 words a minute—my pursuit of Art History under a necessary transnational feminist lens picked up speed.  With her razor-sharp focus and brilliant work centering on art and the history of slavery in Canada, Charmaine is able to bring to life the often brittle study of art history.  For this episode of Misrepresent: Behind the Face, a Fierce Woman, Charmaine Nelson discusses the history of black women slaves in Canada, Reproductive Resistance, Portrait of a Negro Slave, the enigmatic and iconic American artist, Edmonia Lewis, and more!


Edmonia Lewis. Portrait by Henry Rocher, 1870, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

ChDr.-Charmaine-Nelsonarmaine Nelson is an Associate Professor of Art History. Her research and teaching interests include postcolonial and black feminist scholarship, critical (race) theory, Trans Atlantic Slavery Studies and Black Diaspora Studies. Her work examines Canadian, American, European and Caribbean art and visual culture. She has made ground-breaking contributions to the fields of the Visual Culture of Slavery, Race and Representation and Black Canadian Studies. Professor Nelson is also an expert on nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture. Her research and teaching explore various genres of so-called high, low and popular art forms, including photography, prints, sculpture, dress, portraiture, still-life, nudes and landscape art. Professor Nelson has held several prestigious fellowships and appointments, including a Caird Senior Research Fellowship, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK (2007), a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair, University of California – Santa Barbara (2010) and a Visiting Professorship at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Department of Africology (2011). Her most recent SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada)-funded research project explores nineteenth-century landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica as products of colonial discourse and imperial geography. She has already published a lengthy book chapter with some of her research findings: “Sugar Cane, Slaves and Ships: Colonialism, Geography and Power in Nineteenth-Century Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica,” ed. Ana Lucia Araujo, Living History: Encountering the Memory of the Heirs of Slavery (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishers, 2009).

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