Shani Jamila, Cohort ’15
This summer the incoming IDSVA class met each other for the first time during our residency in Italy. We visited Rome, Siena, Florence and Venice, in addition to spending two weeks studying art and philosophy at Spannocchia, a beautiful 12th century castle in Tuscany. During the day, we took in breathtaking views of the terraced organic gardens and rolling hills. When evening fell, as many fireflies as you can imagine punctuated the dusk with glitter before the night sky grew so heavy with stars that it seemed to sink towards us.
In addition to hosting travelers, the castle functions as an organic garden. The staff grows asparagus, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, capers, herbs and more. Every time we ate, many of the ingredients were harvested right from the grounds. One night we popped peas off the vine and ate them straight out of the pods. There were three huge, cuddly, furball dogs, twelve cats that showed themselves mostly round meal time, wild pigs and boars, chickens, deer and herds of medieval white cattle all around us. The air was so clean and the Tuscan hills were mostly silent, except for occasional distant laughter.
One of the biggest highlights of our time at Spannocchia was that two remarkable individuals—Dr. David Driskell and Dr. Adrienne Childs, briefly joined us. It was an honor to have both of these scholars visit us together, as they regularly collaborate on projects such as Creative Spirit: The Art of David Driskell, and Conversations: African and African American Art in Dialogue from the National Museum of African Art and the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. collections. Dr. Childs also worked as a curator at the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora, which is housed at her alma mater, the University of Maryland College Park.
The three of us traveled to Spannocchia together from the extraordinary Black Portraitures conference, where we had the opportunity to be with a global community of artists, scholars and curators who’d gathered to discuss the image of the Black body in the west. Upon our arrival, I had the pleasure of introducing Dr. Childs to the group in advance of her lecture. A renowned art historian and curator, whose current work Ornamental Blackness: The Black Body in European Decorative Arts reflects her interest in race and representation in European and American art, she spoke with us about the ways that epistemologies are created through visual representations.
Dr. Childs discussed her research on blackamoors, stylized depictions of Black bodies that are often realized as sculpture or jewelry, and asked us to consider the ways in which they might compare to U.S. lawn jockeys. We talked about the trajectory of their development in relationship to minstrelsy and explored the ways in which history is aestheticized and beauty is constructed. It was an exciting opportunity to engage with issues that are of deep importance to many scholars at IDSVA and a fantastic foundation for our growing work together.