Black Baroque


A Black Baroque Interview

The Black Baroque is a rich analytic bound to yield many research projects, books, or exhibitions. Today we are thrilled to feature the work of Dr. Childs and Dr. Clarke. Click their names to learn more about them and about interviewer Rachel L. Willis.

Interviewees: Christa Clarke and  Adrienne L. Childs, Co-Curators of  Black Baroque: Spectacular Presence in Contemporary Art

Interviewer: Rachel L. Willis, manager of the Black Baroque Project, 2022-2023

Preface by Rachel L. Willis:

In my two years as the graduate student manager of the Black Baroque project, I have had the privilege of meeting artists and scholars from all over the world–hearing their accounts of the personal, political, aesthetic, and even spiritual motivations that inspired them to embrace the (seemingly) incongruent fusion of blackness and baroqueness–and sitting with the curiosity and caution that their works evoked in me as a viewer. We normally look to the future as a site of potentiality; given that the future is such a blank canvas, it’s easy to project all of our idealistic hopes and dreams onto it. Meanwhile the past is often a receptacle of our shame, flushed embarrassment about our previous lack of enlightenment and sophistication, or a negative marker used to measure how much Progress we’ve made.  During my time working on this project, however, all of our invited artists challenged me to think more about the radical potentiality of the past as a site of worldmaking and decolonization, and my wonderful conversation with Dr. Childs and Dr. Clarke about their own Black Baroque project below further illuminated for me the deep interconnectedness between the ideological underpinnings of the Baroque aesthetic and the modern conceptualization of blackness, as well as the important historical and political interventions that contemporary artists are making through this movement.

R.L.W: We discussed this briefly during our recent conversation on Zoom, but could you start off by elaborating on what the ‘Baroque’ in Black Baroque means to you? 

Baroque is a complex, dynamic, and often fugitive term that has been contested both historically and in its varied manifestations. We use it in exploring what we consider a “baroque turn” in contemporary art of the global Black diaspora. The Baroque period (roughly 1600 to 1800) was critical in the formation of the Black Atlantic, a significant result of the era’s exploration and exploitation of resources, both human and material, across the globe. It has been fruitful fodder for Black artists who are interested in mining the vagaries of European art to examine their place in it and, more broadly, to consider from “within” the era that created what we now know as the African diaspora. We see this through both direct references to art and culture of the Baroque era as well as what we think of as neo-baroque aesthetics and sensibilities. Defining characteristics of the latter include: theatricality, illusion and spectacle; exuberance and heightened emotion; luxury, ornamentation and material excess; visual and sensorial seduction; and hybridity and the integration of media and genres. We formulated the term Black Baroque in 2017 to describe the use of baroque aesthetics as a decolonizing and re-centering strategy in contemporary Black diasporic artistic practice and together intend to explore this concept through a museum exhibition and related publication. What we conceptualize as Black Baroque in the visual arts is a practice that emerges from and engages traits characterized as baroque but specifically accommodates the experience of New World slavery and its continuing impacts. As we see it, in taking on the baroque, contemporary Black artists are challenging false absences by asserting in bold and spectacular ways their historical and contemporary presence. Our project investigates how Black artists use baroque aesthetics as a reparative or liberatory strategy, imaginatively responding to the profound displacement and historical absences of the Middle Passage in ways that center Black identities.


R.L.W: Thinking about the other half of that phrase (since we can’t always take for granted what ‘Black’ means in a given context), can you share a little bit about how you two are thinking about the ‘Black’ in Black Baroque, or perhaps what Adrienne has referred to in her work as ‘the black figure’? What relationship do you see between baroqueness and blackness? 

Our use of “Black” in Black Baroque links the art to makers who identify as part of the Black diaspora. The Black diaspora is broadly defined as descendants of Africans who have been dispersed involuntarily or voluntarily across the globe since the early modern era. Our project focuses on Black artists who live and work in the “West” – Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean – and whose artistry engages the formation of black identities and cultures and/or chronicles the histories forged within the fraught racial dynamics of the Black Atlantic. Interestingly, the “Black figure” in Adrienne’s work is a much more passive idea. Whereas Black Baroque refers to the generative creative energy of black artists invested in their own self-expression, self-representation, Adrienne’s use of the Black figure is often a depiction, an image with no agency. In the history of European representation, the Black figure has been a typology, a symbol that has often been ill defined and used as a foil for the more powerful and active “white figure.”  It is precisely the objectification of the Black figure in the history of European art that much of the Black Baroque artistry reclaims in an effort to uncover lost histories, to shape identities and to heal.  


R.L.W: Like our Black Baroque project, your project also aims to engage with contemporary artists from the African diaspora who incorporate baroque aesthetics into their work. Since Prof. Ndiaye and I are not art historians ourselves, it would be great to get your perspective on Black Baroque from a more historical vantage point. I’m wondering, do we see baroque aesthetics being consistently taken up by black artists across the 20th century, or would you say that artworks that engage with the baroque are a more contemporary phenomenon?  

We are considering Black Baroque as a relatively recent and largely 21st century phenomena. Although Black American artists Bob Thompson and Robert Colescott engaged European art in the 1960s and 1970s it was not until the long 21st century that a critical mass of Black diasporic artists developed a sustained conversation with this powerful yet fraught history. Our project seeks to define the chronological reach of the Black Baroque, to understand both the “what” and the “why” of this historical moment.


R.L.W: Adrienne, could you share a bit about your forthcoming book, Ornamental Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts, and perhaps how it ties into the public-facing work you’ve done so far with Black Baroque? 

I coined the term “Ornamental Blackness” to describe system of codes in which the black body – enslaved, feared, and subjugated in one context – is the symbol of opulence in another. Figurative Black bodies in the form of furniture and decorative objects were at one time coveted objects de luxe that naturalized an enormous system of inhumanity. Further, these objects were often owned by stakeholders in the slave economy that derived their wealth from the labor of blacks, making them into trophies of exploitation. However, the conceits of ornamentation and functionality have obfuscated their ability to communicate political and social meaning. My book Ornamental Blackness is the first of its kind to survey objects that have been overlooked or difficult to define. The book chronicles a select group of objects representing the Black figure in European decorative arts from the seventeenth century court of Louis XIV through the nineteenth century. There is quite a bit of overlap between Ornamental Blackness and Black Baroque. As it turns out, my book begins in the baroque court of Louis XIV at Versailles where, contrary to what many would imagine, there is a substantial Black presence and blackness is represented throughout the aesthetic program. By looking into how Black figures came to appear in rarified spaces like Versailles and subsequently ignored, I feel like I have an increased understanding of what speaking back to the baroque might mean and a heightened sensitivity to the way Black people in the diaspora were never far from power, even if powerless. Several of the contemporary artists that we are considering for our Black Baroque project are artists that I include in my Ornamental Blackness presentations and publications as a coda to the historical material.  

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