Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance

(Concord, Ontario: Captus Press, October 2018)
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Towards and African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance, is the first book to consolidate the field of African Canadian Art History. Despite the centuries-long presence of Africans in Canada, black Canadian artistic and cultural production has been summarily neglected. Although Canadian participation in Transatlantic Slavery resulted in a repository of often stereotypical images of black subjects which parallels that of other western nations, Canada's artistic investments in colonial ideals of blackness have yet to be fully examined or challenged.

Drawing from the established fields of African American Art History, Race and Representation, and The Visual Culture of Slavery, the contributors argue for an African Canadian Art History which can simultaneously examine the artistic contributions of black Canadian artists within their unique historical contexts, critique the colonial representation of black subjects by white artists, and contest the customary racial homogeneity of Canadian Art History.

The book examines art, artists, and visual and material culture from the eighteenth century to the present. Posing a conscious challenge to the boundaries of traditional art historical understandings of artistic value and worth, this ground-breaking book explores "high," "low," and popular art across various media including caricature, conceptual art, dolls, dress, advertisements, genre studies, landscapes, and portraiture. Towards and African Canadian Art Historypoints us in a new direction, encouraging movement towards artistic, scholarly, and art historical futures which are more inclusive, while calling for the acknowledgement of black artists and subjects in their unique Canadian-ness as well as their shared African and Black Diasporic histories.

Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance, edited by Charmaine A. Nelson, is the first book to break new ground in the underdeveloped field of race and blackness in Canadian art history. Spanning histories from 1752 to 2012, this collection of essays addresses the African diaspora in Canada through topics ranging from cultural resistance, institutional critique, contemporary art, blackface minstrelsy and newspaper classifieds showing runaway slaves and slaves for sale"¦ Towards an African Canadian Art History asserts space for Black subjects and anti-racism research in Canadian art, culture and history. The book is a declaration of an emerging field, with ramifications for how we think about race and the institutional racism that persists. This collection confronts readers with a troubled cultural and social history that has yet to be acknowledged. Confronting and confessing this past reveals a fuller and more complex narrative beyond benevolent Canadian cultural myths, and such recognition is crucial for understanding or acting on uncomfortable issues of race and violence today.

Chris J. Gismondi is a queer white qallunaaq Settler from Nanzuhzaugewazog, now living in Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyaang. They are a SSHRC-funded art historian and PhD candidate at McGill University.
Canadian Art Reviews


Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica

(London, UK: Routledge/Taylor Francis, June 2016)
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Nineteenth century Montreal and Jamaica were British island settlements, seized from other empires, inhabited by indigenous peoples, and strategically cultivated by enslaved Africans. With the rise of abolitionism, both settlements were also in crisis as the first quarter of the century drew to a close. But why are such sites never analyzed in tandem? In Slavery, Geography, and Empire Nelson delivers one of the first Slavery Studies books to juxtapose temperate and tropical slavery and the first such comparative work in Art History. While research in the visual culture of slavery has focused upon human-centered representations (ie. portraiture, genre, nudes), far less attention has been given to the role of landscape art in Trans Atlantic Slavery. Exploring a vast range of primary sources including travel narratives, plantation ledgers, merchant cash books, and planters' journals, Nelson juxtaposes the British island settlements of Montreal and Jamaica to question how the representation of land became central to the possession of territory, the control of resources, and the othering of African and indigenous populations. Drawing from postcolonial theory, critical geography, and black feminist thought, the book examines eighteenth and nineteenth-century genre studies and portraits alongside landscape representations - mainly maps and topographical prints - to explore the centrality of landscape art to the British re-imagination of both islands and the indigenous and enslaved inhabitants as their rightful possessions.

The book delivers a careful postcolonial re-examination of the picturesque as a tool of objectification which rendered both indigenous and African bodies as abject, idle, and anti-modern; staffage extraneous to the capitalist work of empire, strictly coded as European and Euro-American. Drawing from renown authors on Jamaica like Hans Sloane, Edward Long, William Beckford, and Maria Nugent and lesser known works by John Seller, Gilbert Mathison, Matthew Lewis, Thomas Cooper, and R. Bickell, Nelson illuminates this moment of deep political crisis "“ between the end of the slave trade (1807) and complete abolition (1833) - for British slave owners who used visual culture to imagine spaces free of conflict and to alleviate their pervasive anxiety about slave resistance.

Nelson delivers the first detailed analysis of James Hakewill's A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1825) and William Clark's Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), arguing that the absenting of the labour of enslaved Africans from Jamaican landscapes was a picturesque aesthetic strategy with far-reaching political implications. Equally as important, Slavery, Geography, and Empire insists on Montreal as a site of Black Diaspora, critically reiterating Canada's much-suppressed slaving histories and re-examining Canadian icons like James McGill for his role as art patron, slave owner, and colonial merchant. In the end, the deep transoceanic connections between Montreal and Jamaica are exposed since the Atlantic Ocean, slavery, colonial trade, and the British exploitation of enslaved Africans indelibly joined the two sites.

"Charmaine A. Nelson's compelling and innovative reading of British Caribbean marine landscapes in Montreal and Jamaica (1760-1820) expands slavery studies and the visual culture of slavery to consider for the first time a second Middle Passage between the Caribbean and Canada. She thus expands the traditional slave trade triangle to now include Great Britain, the West Indies, and Canada. Her erudite and rich analysis of visual culture combined with postcolonial feminist theory is a major contribution to readers in a myriad of fields."
Vivien Green Fryd, Professor, American and Contemporary Art, Vanderbilt University, USA


"Charmaine Nelson's keen analysis reveals her sharp intellect as she addresses the realities of racism in Canada and the Caribbean: the absences, the distortions and the erasures that stifled black voices suffering the opprobrium of slavery. Canada somehow, willfully, disappeared from Atlantic slavery, from the shameful, painful collective history that encompassed all of us. This is a "big book", and though its focus is visual arts, it is multidisciplinary and universal in its scope."
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA


"This book project is set to make critical contributions to a wide range of scholarly disciplines - from Slavery Studies, to Art History, Visual Culture and Postcoloniality, Canadian History, studies of Empire, and Native Studies. The author's rigorous mining of a vast archive - be it maps, prints, paintings or texts - serves to distinguish this study from many others in its thoroughness and depth." It poses a challenge to, "existing scholarship on slavery studies, the history of the Atlantic slave trade, histories of print and painting production and the manner in which the disciplines of art history and visual studies have addressed race and vision. "
Anonymous Peer-Reviewer


"At the heart of Nelson's book is a critique of the disciplines of slavery studies and art history. She argues that slavery studies has not engaged with visual art in meaningful ways outside the human body, and that art history has failed to raise significant and consistent questions related to race, colonialism, and imperialism because of the unsuitability of [its] dominant methodologies and practices (2) to such discourses...Chapter Six exemplifies her project: she offers a close reading of Hakewill's 'A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica' and his erasure of the enslaved body from the land. At the same time in this chapter, she writes poignantly about white male sexual exploitation of black women in Jamaica and the astoundingly brutal nature of Jamaican slavery. She does this in order to challenge Hakewill's vision of Jamaican sugar plantations as scenes of picturesque tranquility (235). Her comparative project signals her position as scholarly activist and practitioner of a hybrid art history that incorporates a close attending to the visuals, a concern for what is seen and not seen, and a self-reflexivity concerning how the author positions herself. Throughout the book, one senses her outrage and indictment of the slavery complex as well as her commitment to telling a new story about the visualization and imaginings of slavery, geography, and empire in the nineteenth-century colonial world of Montreal and Jamaica."

Renee Ater, Independent Scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art of the United States
RACAR Reviews

"Nelson's meditation on the (in)visibility of slavery in Canadian life and culture extends from the late eighteenth century to the present day. Her Montreal chapters are especially valuable for their incisive discussion of how the establishment of prominent city institutions like McGill University was sustained through the expropriation of Indigenous territories and material wealth from the slave trade. By highlighting university founder James McGill's ownership of black and native slaves and his consistent trade (86) in plantation crops in chapter 2, for example, Nelson advances an ongoing call for institutions of higher education to confront their ties to slavery and settler colonialism. In so doing she extends and complicates an issue explored by Craig Steven Wilder in Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013) to a wider North American context that includes Canada alongside the United States. 
Slavery, Geography and Empire in Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica is, as Nelson writes in the introduction, a work of redress...a key strength of the book's comparative and transoceanic focus is that it prioritizes Canada as a site crucial to understanding histories of the African diaspora configured through and under slavery. Nelson's study works to interrupt dominant narratives of place and nationhood, and its address to an expansive range of geographies, images, texts, and histories should provide myriad openings for future studies on slavery and empire across disciplines.

Caitlin Beach, PhD candidate, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University


Legacies Denied: Unearthing the Visual Culture of Canadian Slavery

Legacies Denied: Unearthing the Visual Culture of Canadian Slavery
(Montreal: Printed for author by McGill Copy Service, 2013)

Extensively illustrated, this exhibition catalogue emerged from a fourth year undergraduate, Art History course, Canadian Slavery and its Legacies: a Curatorial Seminar, taught in 2013 by Prof. Charmaine Nelson at McGill University, Montreal. Working with the holdings of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, the students curated an exhibition, assembling a variety of extraordinary art and visual culture objects of direct relevance to Trans Atlantic Slavery. Like the course, the catalogue and exhibition contest the erasure of Canadian participation in the histories of Trans Atlantic Slavery, instead highlighting the role of Canadian art and visual culture in producing, sustaining and resisting the enslavement of people of African descent and Natives in the territories that became Canada.

Congratulations to you and your students on the show! It is really inspiring in terms of both pedagogy and research."Shelley Butler, CEREV, CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY, Montreal, Canada

It seems to me that it is only in recent years that this unfortunate part of Canadian history is being studied.

Your impressive book arrived safely...Congratulations to you and your students. Philip L. Hartling, NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES, Halifax, Canada

A splendid piece of work. Congratulations to your students for the effort they put into this, and to you for creating this unique opportunity. Nele Sawallisch, PhD Candidate, Germany

I had no idea the breadth of the work you had done with the students. This is an important reference work in additon to being a reification of the work your students have done, and a tribute to your dedicated and inspired teaching. It's such an important contribution to the field!  Karolyn Smardz Frost, Senior Research Fellow for African Canadian History, HARRIET TUBMAN INSTITUTE, YORK UNIVERSITY & Canadian Bicentennial Visiting Fellow and Lecturer, YALE UNIVERSITY (2012-13)

Thank you for this marvelous document. I hope that it will receive wide readership throughout Canada. I hope that distribution reaches foreign shores as well.
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor Emeritus Africology, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN - MILWAUKEE, USA

[Legacies Denied] is indeed and impressive gathering of reserach and imagery. We are happy to be able to add this volume to the library's collection for the benefit of our readers. Jonathan Franklin, Chief, Libraray, Archives and Fellowships Program, NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA, Ottawa, Canada

Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada

(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars' Press, 2010)
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Ebony Roots, Northern Soil is a powerful and timely collection of critical essays exploring the experiences, histories and cultural engagements of black Canadians. Drawing from postcolonial, critical race and black feminist theory, this innovative anthology brings together an extraordinary set of well-recognized and new scholars engaging in the critical debates about the cultural politics of identity and issues of cultural access, representation, production and reception. Emerging from a national conference in 2005, the book records, critiques and yet transcends this groundbreaking event. Drawn from a range of disciplines including Art History, Communication Studies, Cultural Studies, Education, English, History and Sociology, the chapters examine black contributions to and participation within the realms of popular music, television and film, the art world, museums, academia and social activism. In the process, the burning issues of access to cultural capital, the practice of multiculturalism, definitions of black Canadianness and the state of Black Canadian Studies are dissected. Attentive to issues of sexuality and gender as well as race, the book also explores and challenges the dominance of black Americanness in Canada, especially in its incarnation as hip hop. Acknowledging a differently constituted and heterogeneous black Canadianness, it contemplates the possibility of an identity in dialogue with, and yet distinct from, dominant ideals of African-Americanness.

Ebony Roots also explores the deficit in Black Canadian Studies across the nation's universities, drawing a line between the neglect of black Canadian populations, histories and experiences in general and the resulting lack of an academic disciplinary infrastructure. Poignant blends of the personal and the political, the chapters are both scholarly in their critical insights and rigour and daring in their honesty. Ebony Roots defiantly foregrounds the often-disavowed issues of institutional racism against blacks in Canadian academia, education and cultural institutions as well as the injurious effects of everyday racism. In so doing, the book challenges the myth of Canada as a racially benevolent and tolerant state, the great white north free from racism and the legacy of colonialism. Instead the very definitions of Canada and black Canadianness are unpacked and explored. Ebony Roots is a necessary history lesson, a contemporary cultural debate and a call to action. It is a momentous and overdue contribution to Black Canadian Studies and a must read for academics, students and the general public alike.

This [book] indeed makes a significant contribution to studies on race and in particular race in Canada, it attempts to separate issues of race from that in the US, clearly delineating key areas of differences, this study to my knowledge is unparalleled. It is also fresh, nuanced, and contemporaneous, exploring such topics as hospitality and urban music (hip-hop) and dress. The book will also be relevant for university administration and politicians wanting to take seriously the issue of race in the academy and in government.
Professor Sandra Jackson, Director, Center for Black Diaspora, DePaul University, Chicago, USA

I believe that this book would make a significant contribution to the field [it is] breaking new ground. Much like the works that gave birth to African American and Black Studies in the US, this book asserts the importance of examining race and its working foregrounding the academy. It poses issues salient to not only the curriculum and pedagogy, but also matters related to inclusion of black faculty and other faculty of color. When these things are critically examined, and realities laid bare, then they can no longer be ignored or seen as the mere imaginings of Others. I would also highly recommend it to Vice Presidents of Diversity and Provosts or Chancellors of Academic Affairs who are responsible for exercising leadership in implementing institutional commitment to diversity.
Professor Jude Nixon, Dean of Arts and Science, Salem State University, USA

Representing the Black Female Subject in Western Art

(New York: Routledge, 2010)
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This book offers the first concentrated examination of the representation of the black female subject in Western art through the lenses of race/color and sex/gender. Charmaine A. Nelson poses critical questions about the contexts of production, the problems of representation, the pathways of circulation and the consequences of consumption. She analyzes not only how, where, why and by whom black female subjects have been represented, but also what the social and cultural impacts of the colonial legacy of racialized western representation have been. Nelson also explores and problematizes the issue of the historically privileged white artistic access to black female bodies and the limits of representation for these subjects. This book not only reshapes our understanding of the black female representation in Western Art, but also furthers our knowledge about race and how and why it is (re)defined and (re)mobilized at specific times and places throughout history.

The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
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How do we see race when the color of skin is stone? Nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture was a highly politicized international movement. Based at Rome, many expatriate American sculptors created works that represented black female subjects in compelling and problematic ways. Rejecting pigment as dangerous and sensual, adherence to white marble abandoned the racialization of the black body by skin color.

In The Color of Stone, Charmaine A. Nelson brilliantly analyzes a key, but often neglected, aspect of neoclassical sculpture, color. Considering three major works, "Hiram Powers's Greek Slave, William Wetmore Story's Cleopatra, and Edmonia Lewis's Death of Cleopatra”she explores the intersection of race, sex, and class to reveal the meanings each work holds in terms of colonial histories of visual representation as well as issues of artistic production, identity, and subjectivity. She also juxtaposes these sculptures with other types of art to scrutinize prevalent racial discourses and to examine how the black female subject was made visible in high art.

By establishing the centrality of race within the discussion of neoclassical sculpture, Nelson provides a model for a black feminist art history that at once questions and destabilizes canonical texts.

In The Color of Stone, the fields of art history, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory are brought into new and mutually fruitful dialogue with one another. Charmaine Nelson has not just broken new ground; her study is an intellectual watershed. -  Judith Wilson, INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR, Irvine, California

The Color of Stone Nelson explains how the material reality of black bodies brutalized by slavery is connected to the aesthetics of 19th-century neo-classical sculpture and how white marble's high currency emerges. Nelson shows how white marble possesses a symbolic value as well as an economic one, and how it gradually becomes conflated with purity and beauty through excluding black and white (classed) bodies. In a fascinating discussion, Nelson shapes the significance of [Edmonia] Lewis's story with passionate scholarship that both academics and general readers can enjoy. - Cy-Thea Sand, HERIZONS

The introduction of The Color of Stone "would be invaluable reading in methodology seminars in both art history and Women's Studies departments, as well as in advanced courses on nineteenth-century art, feminism and art history, and gender, race, and representation. - Elizabeth Adan, FEMINIST FORMATIONS

Evidently there exists little biographical information on nineteenth century sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Charmaine A. Nelson, of McGill University in Montreal, used this to her advantage. The scholar let her search for data bring forth a broader examination of the politics of nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture, its aesthetics of gender and beauty, and its racial discourse. When a Hollywood movie is made of Edmonia Lewis' working life and struggle in Rome's bubbling, competitive art world, Charmaine A. Nelson's valuable book will further be a resource. - Michael R. Mosher, LEONARDO REVIEWS ONLINE 

In order to critique the inherent 'whiteness' of both the players (neoclassical artists) and their medium (white marble), Nelson foregrounds the black female body as a sculptural subject, and adroitly pieces together a mostly uncharted narrative. In doing so, she taps an array of rare and unpublished primary source documents that detail the lives and works of American neoclassical sculptors abroad. Without question, The Color of Stone is an exceptionally well-researched text; and its premise is an intriguing one, to say the least.
- Lisa E. Farrington, WOMAN'S ART JOURNAL

Nelson has opened up new ways of looking at Neoclassical sculpture and introduced creative avenues for thinking about its powerful cultural meanings. In so doing, she has provided a great service to American art historians. - Melissa Dabakis, CAA.REVIEWS

Charmaine Nelson's The Color of Stone is a fascinating contribution to nineteenth-century African American stuides and to art history broadly...Nelson offers not only a detailed visual analysis but also careful archival study that alerts readers to issues of conception and composition. Nelson's anaysis in articluating this complex geneaology is consistently rich - considering race and gender in a deeply intertwined dialogue and beginning to actively factor in class, location, and sexuality...future work will certainly have to address the riches offered by both Nelson's cross-disciplinary sense and her important recovery work, especially that surrounding Edmonia Lewis. - Eric Gardner, AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW

Racism Eh?: A Critical Inter-Disciplinary Anthology of Race in the Canadian Context

(Concord: Captus Press/Captus University, Publications, 2004)
*co-edited with Camille Nelson
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Racism, Eh? Is the first publication that examines racism within the broad Canadian context. This anthology brings together many of the visionaries seeking to illustrate the topics of race and racism in Canada. Through their analyses of historical and contemporary issues, race and racism are addressed as both physical and psychological phenomena. Inter-disciplinary in nature, this book is ideal for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as academics who are studying or practicing within Humanities and the Social Sciences. Anyone searching for information on what has been a little-explored and poorly-understood Canadian issue will find Racism, Eh? an invaluable resource.

The most powerful aspect of this Anthology, and the one which therefore generated an immense pleasure, was the complexity of Black Canadian experience. There is a huge absence in Canadian anti-racist writing with respect to Black people, and this anthology begins to address this lack in a serious manner.
-Bonita Lawrence. Associate Professor, Department of Equity Studies, YORK UNIVERSITY, TORONTO

The reader will gain enormously from the experience and topics included in this Anthology.
-Donald F. Andrus, Professor Emeritus of Art History, CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY, MONTREAL