I research and teach about black contemporary art, visual culture, and performance traditions. My research is motivated by the belief that studying contemporary visual art and performance offers insight into collective ideas about race and gender. I am most interested in cultural practices that cultivate a radical imagination in viewers through the reexamination of social norms.
My book project, The Ship That is the Body: the Middle Passage in Time-Based Art, 1986-1994 investigates contemporary black American performing and visual arts that reimagine the history of the Atlantic slave trade. In the manuscript, I analyze late 20th-century artistic practices that reframe how audiences understand themselves as historical actors, alerting them to the ways that they co-create the meaning of both black (art) objects and black subjects. Specifically, by altering viewer experiences of time and space, the artists model critical approaches to Enlightenment notions of time that link linearity with Western progress at the expense of black subjects, offering an embodied frame for seeing differently through that time. Additionally, the artists put pressure on the lack of progress or stasis implied by the idea of “the afterlife of slavery,” a term coined by scholar Saidiya Hartman to point to the contemporaneity of 21st-century black subjects with the enslaved. Using approaches that illuminate how viewers physically bear that afterlife (and could bear it differently), I argue that the artists in The Ship That is the Body remap the relationship between the slave past and the present; in doing so, they help contemporary readers to envision possible futures.
My current research takes two forms. First, I am writing a book-length study centered on the role of drag in contemporary black performance and visual art. Specifically, I address black people either posing or performing in drag in museums or engaging with ballroom culture, beginning in the 1980s and extending to the present day. The project asks how everyday embodied practices, performance strategies and other kinds of cultural labor articulate a kind of political worldbuilding. Second, I am engaging in a research and creative practice with my choreographer sister, the other half of knightworks dance theater. Specifically, we shape our explorations around a series of questions: Are there physical technologies that we can tap into to help transform our relationship with our own bodies? Are there ways that moving together can help us imagine a body politic? A different, more just world? On a smaller scale, can we work together to create a space within the academy where exploring these kinds of questions is possible? This research has been supported by The Center for Black Visual Culture at NYU, The Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania, and Department of Art History & Archaeology at Columbia University.