Professor Makes Space for Black Art in Academic Art History
Focus on Questioning Norms in the Field on Display in New Book, Journal Issue
When Jordana Moore Saggese was growing up in Nashville, there was no art museum in town, but there was the Hermitage, home of slave owner and seventh U.S. President Andrew Jackson.
“Literally going to a plantation and seeing white people on the walls,” said Saggese, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Art History & Archaeology. “That was my experience of art.”
A researcher of modern and contemporary American art, she is working toward a more inclusive view of art, and earlier this month published “The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader: Writings, Interviews and Critical Responses,” her second book on the young American artist (1960-88) of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent.
And in her role as editor-in-chief of Art Journal, a publication of the College Art Association of America, she seeks to make space for greater diversity in the field of art history. She is the first Black woman to lead the journal in its 80-year history.
Last month, Saggese oversaw the first issue of Art Journal to focus exclusively on “Blackness.” In 134 pages of scholarly essays, book reviews and exhibition reviews, the issue counters the discipline’s dominant narratives of whiteness and white supremacy through an “intentional conversation around the experiences, expressions and theorizations of Blackness.” The entire issue is free to read through today.
“I know it is a pretty bold move to call out the discipline and play a part in unmaking its history,” she said. “But this was my moment of saying, ‘You know what? I’m actually going to take a stand here.’”
Saggese first caught a glimpse of the contemporary art she would go on to study in 1997, when she and a friend decided to leave their senior prom early to rent a movie from Blockbuster. On a whim, they chose Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat,” a biographical drama about the late artist, known for his colorful, graffiti-like images.
“Basquiat’s art challenged everything I thought art could be,” she said. “It was messy, it was expressive, it was conceptual, it had language on it, it had layers upon layers, it was opaque, it was dense, it was difficult. And I kept that experience in the back of my mind as I entered university.”
Saggese attended Vanderbilt University as a first-generation college student and found herself enraptured by the range of artworks she was suddenly exposed to in class, from Chinese art to Mexican muralism. After one lecture on Dada, an early-20th-century movement of European avant-garde art, she realized art was “not something meant only for the elite, but that it could also be a form of rebellion.”
But it was in a lower-level, required art history course that Saggese had what she calls a “rude awakening.”
Whereas other art history courses opened her eyes to diverse works and perspectives, the instructor of her art history survey lecture—intended to be a comprehensive, global overview of the history of art—projected a succession of images of a “mostly white, male, heterosexist art history.”
“I immediately began to question it,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘Why are we talking just about Western Europe? What happened to the other works I had learned about?’”
That experience set her on a path to question the “colonialist logic” she began to see in much of modern art history and to explore what she could do to change it. As she entered graduate school, she knew that she would take seriously the artists that few people were talking about.
Saggese went on to get her Ph.D. in modern and contemporary art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has now published on Basquiat in academic outlets and catalogues for exhibitions in New York, London, Germany, Montreal and Paris. Her first book, “Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art,” published in 2014, is a monograph—the ultimate critical recognition in art history—that reconsiders the artist’s place in modern American art. (The book was recently rereleased in paperback.) She also wrote the script for a TED-ED talk on Basquiat.
Her latest book aims to provide a full picture of his views, his working process and the critical significance of his work. Publisher’s Weekly said the book “should be required reading for contemporary art and African American history connoisseurs alike.”
Saggese is also working on a book called “Game On: Boxing, Race, and Masculinity,” which looks at visual representations of Black male heavyweight boxers from the late 19th century, a project for which she was recently awarded a University of Maryland Independent Scholarship, Research, and Creativity Award.
She became editor-in-chief of Art Journal in 2018 intending to emphasize writers and artists of color and increase representation of non-European, non-Western art. The Blackness issue features artist projects by two Black women, and book and exhibition reviews that center entirely on works by and about Black artists. The feature essays focus on artists who explore the “histories, sensations and consequences of Blackness in their work.”
Karin Zitzewitz, chair of the Art Journal editorial board and interim chair of the Department of Art, Art History and Design at Michigan State University, said the Blackness issue “brings attention to the rigor and energy in the field of African American art history, which is built upon decades of work by Black artists—right up to the present—as well as exciting methodological and theoretical debates. Jordana has built upon her own position in the field and her network of friends and allies, in order to draw our focus to the lively community around Black art.”
It’s especially poignant as the country reckons with its foundational history of racism and as COVID-19 has devastated many Black communities, Saggese said. Holding the final product—boldly published with a black matte cover—was a kind of “out of body experience.”
“I feel in so many ways that this issue is a culmination of everything I’ve ever wanted to do in the discipline,” she said.