The session entitled “Reframing Aesthetics: Diaspora, Historicity, and The Myth of Truth” was presented at the 2021 CAA conference and co-chaired by Carolyn Martin and Jocelyn Holmes. The panel included presenters Kimberly Alvarado and Natalya Mills. Each panelist presented papers that challenged traditional Western concepts of aesthetics in relation to visual representations of the African diaspora in philosophical thinking and historical narratives. Through their scholarship, these panelists demonstrated how aesthetical hierarchies, which are determined by mythologized notions of truth, must be examined and confronted for the methods by which they justify and perpetuate the attempted erasure of diverse perspectives. These scholars identified that problematic notions of ‘truth’ are secured through narratives of colonization in written, oral, and visual histories. The opinions put forth on this panel demonstrated how radical reframing of aesthetics is necessary to challenge the philosophical canon and critique contemporary aesthetics. By arguing for the mobilization of visual art to broaden definitions of aesthetics, these thinkers advocated for the inclusion of diasporic perspectives in contributing to what is determined as true and appreciated as beautiful. These arguments exemplified how various modes of thinking can be implemented to conceive and open philosophical, historical, and cultural narratives to multiplicitous understandings.
In Jocelyn Holmes’ paper, “Addressing Erasure Through Critical Fabulation: Reimagining Myth, Art, and Truth,” she demonstrated how the epistemological hierarchies inscribed in Western metaphysics problematically construct hegemonic myths of white supremacy. While such myths are reinforced and perpetuated through curated histories, she argued that imagination through modes of “fabula” offers a means of subverting historical traditions that intentionally erase diverse and diasporic perspectives. Starting from the artistic intervention of Kara Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan (2018), her presentation addressed larger theoretical questions regarding the myth of truth in relation to historicity. Further, she demonstrated how Walker’s artwork subverts notions of ‘truth’ in an act of resistance that offers an alternative historical narrative. By implementing Ranhana Khanna’s critique of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, she demonstrated how authorizing power manifests in Heidegger’s notions of “worlding” as processes by which the colonized become concealed. Finally, by mobilizing Saidiya Hartman’s notion of critical “fabulation,” she provided a view of Walker’s work as a means of dialoguing about subjectivity and multiplicity while subverting dominant power structures that “world” the world and secure the myth of white supremacy in written histories.
In Carolyn Martin’s paper, “Andrea Brustolon and Kerry James Marshall: Visualization of Blackness,” she confronted the question: how does the art object contribute to Western historical narratives that have structured the construction and understanding of Black subjectivity? Through a close analysis of Andrea Brustolon’s Baroque blackamoor sculpture Etiope Portavaso and Kerry James Marshall’s contemporary American Frankenstein painting, Martin examinesed how the art object creates a window in which to view the complex visual historical legacy of the cultural construct that is the Black subject. Martin engaged in an analysis of Brustolon and Marshall’s artworks to interrogate how European historical narratives manifest on the African diasporic body and the hyper-visibility of the Black body in the Western art historical tradition. Through a critical lens of Achille Mbembe, Frantz Fanon, and Nicole Fleetwood, Martin revealed how the artistic rendering of the Black body tirelessly performs a service for both the creator and viewer. Her examination ultimately draws attention to how the visual representations of Blackness across time and region is one marked by the service of reflecting subjective ideological fantasies and constructed historical truths that seemingly need to be depicted, confronted, and exploited in a never-ending spectacle of representation.
In Kimberly Aimée Alvarado’s paper, “Hair Straightening in the Hispanic Caribbean: Race, Commodification, Neurosis, and Passing Mestizidad,” she addressed the signification of straight hair within the Hispanic Caribbean community as a sign that can be interpreted through the invention of race, a fetish-commodity, a neurosis, and passing mestizidad. Through Immanuel Kant’s “On the Different Human Races,” her scholarship demonstrated how the development of a problematic discourse of racial hierarchy paved the way for hair types to be commoditized and fetishized. Based on a range of desirability associated with Europeanness, this fetishization subsequently generated a demand for straight hair equal to the type of exchangeable commodities Karl Marx accounts for in Capital. The devaluation of African, or “black hair,” to the level of a “problem” opened up a lucrative opportunity for chemical manufacturers to provide a solution for a price. Alvarado examined how strategies such as lactification for “bettering the race” (mejorando la raza) relate directly to Frantz Fanon’s psychology of the colonized and ontological denial in Black Skin, White Masks. Alvarado looked at the artwork of Firelei Baéz, Ellen Gallagher, and Lorna Simpson to examine aesthetic ways in which different forms of hairwear and modification have been utilized to contend with the phenomenon of “pelo malo” or “bad hair.” While the artists are used to demonstrate that the phenomenon of hair straightening intricately intertwines with the need to pass—as “more white” for African-Americans and as mestizo, or mixed, for Hispanic Caribbeans, Alvarado demonstrated the need for a reevaluation of linguistics to affirm natural hair through implementing terms such as “pelo riso” or curly hair. Alvarado’s project problematizes the one-to-one ratio of race, phenotype, desirability, and conspicuous consumption of social signifiers.
Finally, in Natalya Mills’s paper, “Carnivalizing Philosophy: The Future of Western Thought,” she addressed Caribbean Carnival as a complex creolized ritual, the urban art form of communication, representation, and expression. Interrelationships in the Carnival construct and display the ways in which the Caribbean region has a polyphonic dialogue with themselves and the world. The concept of ‘Carnival’ is presented as a necessary site for transgression, a space for understanding selfhood, creolized identities, a tool for the suspension of social norms, laws, and restrictions placed on the people in the Caribbean region. Mills extended the philosophical contributions of Édouard Glissant, Homi K. Bhabha, Mikhail Bakhtin, Kwame Anthony, Appiah, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari to support her concept of Carnivalizing philosophy. While recent Carnival scholarship has paid much attention to topics such as art, culture, race, economics, and social-political issues, Mills investigated the Carnivalization of philosophy through the lens of Caribbean Carnival to demonstrate how this concept can be used as a point of entry that opens notions multiplicity. Through her scholarship, Mills extended the conversation by examining Caribbean Carnival as a lived, creolized, philosophical concept. She argued that the creolized Caribbean Carnival can provide a model of inclusivity based on the concepts of creolization, mondialité, and polyphony, which could be further applied to expand and broaden the reach of continental philosophy. Through her work, Mills boldly confronted seemingly impossible points of contention such as globalization, cultural appropriation, and technological (mechanical) reproduction in the arts. By looking to the Caribbean region to understand the world, Mills provided a view of how we might resolve some of the challenging topics faced in the twenty-first century.
The virtual conference presentations culminated on Saturday, February 13, 2021, with a live question and answer session. The panelist engaged in a lively discussion with the attendees in further dialogue about their topics. Through their discussion and scholarship, each panelist exemplified a need for various modes of thinking to open philosophical, historical, and cultural narratives to multiplicitous understandings and demonstrated a view of what such modalities of thinking might assume in the mode of the artist-philosopher.