Modernisms: Decolonising art’s history

The Autumn Art Lectures are back in person!

This year marks the 117th anniversary of the Autumn Art Lecture Series. Conceived as a platform for Art and Art History in what was then University College Bristol, the series has remained a highlight in Bristol’s cultural calendar. Over the course of its lifetime, the series has explored themes ranging from the monstruous to the celestial, and hosted such luminaries as Kenneth Clarke, EH Gombrich, Toshio Watanabe, Laura Mulvey and David Olusoga. More recently, a commitment to making space for artists to discuss their own practice has added Paul Gough, Richard Long and 2022 Turner Prize shortlisted-artist Ingrid Pollard to the series’ list of prestigious alumni.

Last year we celebrated the return of the series after a pandemic-related hiatus – the second of only two interruptions in the series’ history, following a short break after the outbreak of the Second World War – with an online event. This year, we are delighted to welcome visitors back on campus to consider the possibilities and implications opened up by recasting ‘Modernisms’. What happens when we challenge the concept of Modernism as a monolithic entity? Is there just one Modern or many? What does it mean to think of Modernism on the global stage? Is there such a thing as an ‘alternative’ Modernism or is Modernism itself already inherently hybrid?

Our theme this year coincides with Bristol’s Festival of Ideas 2022, titled Modernism 1922, which looks to the legacies of that remarkable year – from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T S Elliot’s The Waste Land to the famous Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta (now Kolkata). A tribute to Kevin Jackson’s book, Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, the Festival explores 1922 via film screenings, discussions and new commissions.

In keeping with its spirit – but broadening its ambit – the Autumn Art Lectures will topple the notion of a Euro-American Modernism, which leaves the non-Western world out in the cold. The series will challenge the concept of Modernism as a monolithic entity – it will stress and stretch its polyvalent nature, debating its relationship to nation, diaspora, inclusivity, and race. As many institutions – from galleries and museums to universities – attempt to engage meaningfully with global visual culture, this investigation is vital and timely. Our inter-disciplinary speakers include academics, curators, artists and pedagogues who have grappled with the idea of the Modern, paying particular attention to Blackness, Asian-ness and decolonisation; to anti-colonial struggles and lasting institutional prejudices; to dismantling the hierarchies of Englishness in favour of a more inclusive ‘Britishness’; to revealing the Islamic and Afro-Asian traditions nestled at the core of the so-called ‘Western’ canon. With speakers from (or addressing) the African diaspora, the Islamic world, South Asia, Latin America, the UK and the US, the series aims to expose the polyphonies and diversities that sit at the heart of Modernism.

This event series is open to all, and we look forward to welcoming you to the University of Bristol for these engaging talks.

Events in the series:

The Centre for Black Humanities: Who we are and future directions

The Centre for Black Humanities is an international hub for Black Humanities research in the heart of Bristol. The Centre aims to foster the broad range of research currently being done at the University of Bristol around the artistic and intellectual work of people of African descent. Some of our current interdisciplinary projects include Dr Josie Gill’s research on ‘Black Health and the Humanities’, Dr Elizabeth Robles’ work on Black British Art, and Dr Justin William’s project on UK Hip-Hop. Other research projects include those relating to ethics and social justice, literary activism, and slavery and its legacies.

The Centre is committed to reaching audiences outside the traditional university through a diverse programme of film screenings, reading groups, performances, and research collaborations with local communities. Such activities enable our research to generate impact in other areas including the cultural industries and higher education policy.

Our main priorities as a Centre are: collaboration, interdisciplinarity, engagement, exchange, and internationalism. The Centre works with academics, artists and practitioners – nationally and internationally –  to produce world-leading research in Black Humanities. We work across disciplines in the Arts and Humanities but also beyond, with researchers in the Sciences and Social Sciences. Centre members also facilitate a wide range of public engagement activities based on our research in local, national and international settings, working with museums, charities and other organisations to deliver high-quality, non-academic outputs.

Additionally, we have active research partnerships with local writers, artists and grassroots organisations in Bristol. These help create high-profile opportunities for mutual exchange and collaboration on issues of local and national importance. We also have academic and creative partners in Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Portugal, Brazil, and the US, amongst others. A list of our international board members can be found on our website.

The Centre has had a series of visiting scholars join us. In 2021, we were delighted to host Professor Nicola Aljoe. Professor Aljoe’s research is on Black Atlantic and Caribbean literature with a specialisation on the slave narrative and early novels. She described her time in Bristol:

‘Despite the ongoing COVID pandemic, my sojourn at the Centre for Black Humanities in Bristol during the fall term of 2021 was an incredibly productive and intellectually engaging experience. I conducted research in the Bristol archives on two related projects. The first was the creation of a digital map of the various locations associated with Black people in 18th – century London through the lens of Ignatius Sancho. The second project was my book manuscript on representations of women of colour from the Caribbean in fictional European texts between 1790 and 1830. Such data productively challenges notions of absence of Black people in the archives of Britain at this time, and provides more details about the complexities of their lives.’

The Centre offers exciting opportunities for our early career and postgraduate community, through cutting-edge research and dialogue with arts and community activists. This year, Adriel Miles, Alice Kinghorn and Francis Asante are coordinating a programme of events. Francis explained:

‘The Centre plans to organise a number of postgraduate research (PGR) seminars and reading groups. Two seminars are planned for the first teaching block on topics related to the exploration of racial communities in online spaces, and the relationship between race, music, and cultural politics. These events are designed to encourage a sense of community in the Centre, and to provide a space for learning and socialising. Preparations for the seminars are still ongoing, and further information about them will be shared soon.’

Dr Saima Nasar and Professor Madhu Krishnan

(Centre Co-Directors)