Culture is a messy business, says new leader of the African Studies Center
Steven Nelson, professor of African and African American art and architectural history at UCLA and the new director of its African Studies Center. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Culture is a messy business, says new leader of the African Studies Center

Steven Nelson, the new director of the African Studies Center, seeks to foster a greater sense of campus community among faculty and students interested in Africa.

“We like to think of globalization as somehow a function of neoliberalism, a product of the 20th or 21st century. But if you look at the world in, say, 1300, the part of the world that was not connected was the Western hemisphere."

UCLA International Institute, November 20, 2015 — “I tell students that there is no right or wrong cultural appropriation and they get upset with me,” says Steven Nelson. A professor of African and African American art and architectural history, Nelson recently became the director of the UCLA International Institute’s African Studies Center — one of the oldest academic centers for the interdisciplinary study of Africa in the country.

The art historian is an astute observer of interchanges about cultural appropriation. The idea of treating culture as property is a common theme, he observes, whether it is Africans accusing African Americans, or African Americans accusing white Americans. “This notion that culture is pure — it never is. Or that it is property, or that is isolated,” he remarks.

Nelson tells his students, “It’s not about good or bad [appropriation]. The real question is: How? And to what effect? If I use your ritual outfit as my ball gown, you might not like it, it might be sort of wrong in a way, but it's not ‘wrong’ appropriation. Culture is messy. It's very messy, and I like being in the messiness of it.”

Leading a center that serves the UCLA community and the world

Nelson joins a long line of respected Africanists who have served as director of the African Studies Center (ASC). His most immediate predecessor, the comparative literature scholar Françoise Lionnet, originated the analytical paradigm of créolism. Founded in 1959 by UCLA political scientist James S. Coleman, ASC has long been well-known in Africa. Its most recent project on the continent — a gender education program in Rwanda — is now successfully transitioning to a second stage in which the Center will play a lesser role.

“I'd like to see a Center that works for the UCLA community and also continues its excellence outside in the world,” says Nelson. The art historian’s chief goals for ASC are to kick-start fundraising efforts and to cultivate a community on the UCLA campus for faculty and students interested in Africa. In particular, he’d like the Center to help facilitate faculty and student research.

Nelson, who regularly teaches a big survey class on African arts, makes all his students do map quizzes on Africa when they start the class. “They get so angry with me,” he laughs. Yet misconceptions about Africa abound, beginning with ideas about its uniformity. His list of enduring misconceptions about Africa? “That it’s all the same country; that everyone is poor and starving; that all governments are corrupt; that all African cultures are all small-scale, communal and, basically, not us — a very primitivist vision of the continent.”

He then points out, “Africa is really urban and always has been. There are several cities in Africa that are bigger than most U.S. cities; I can think of two or three that are bigger than New York.” Today, many of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa; its infrastructure is changing rapidly, with mobile phones having transformed everyday life; and China is pouring money into development investments there. (Nelson notes that China, like the U.S. and the USSR before it, invests on a strictly quid pro quo basis). “In general,” he observes, “Africa is globalizing at the same pace as everyone else.”

African and African American art: A diasporic conversation?

As a specialist in both African and African American art, Nelson is accustomed to reading analyses of African American artists that discern African themes and traditions in their work. It’s not only white art critics and art historians who project “African-ness” on the art of African American artists, he explains, it’s also African American art critics and some African American artists themselves.

“On a certain level, African and African American art are two separate fields. I happen to have been trained in both and I happen to write on both,” says Nelson. “But I think that up to a certain point, African American art comes out of American arts in terms of what people make and what people are looking at.”

For him, the “diaspora consciousness” of African American art is strictly a 20th-century phenomenon, one that he traces to the work of the African American philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke (1885–1954). Author of The New Negro (1925), an issue of the periodical Survey Graphic that was later expanded into a standalone publication, Locke was an influential intellectual who articulated the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

“Locke was very much a modernist. He was looking at Picasso and Braque, at what was going on in the avant-garde in the early 20th century and the appropriation of African art. And he then turned to black artists and said, ‘Why aren't we using this, too?’” remarked Nelson. “Locke was basically telling African American artists to go find their roots in Africa at that moment.”

According to the UCLA professor, one begins to see examples of African American artists self-consciously identifying with African art in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps even a little earlier. “But the wholesale turn to the motherland really takes place in the 1960s,” he explains. “It comes on with the Peace Corps and African independence, with a kind of Negritude-Pan Africanism: the notion that we are all colonized,” he explains. “[African Americans] are colonized internally, Africans are colonized by Europe.”

“There are things that make it here [the U.S.] — face jugs, ways of working with iron, ways of making furniture — that people learned on the other side of the Atlantic and retained when they got here. Bottle trees in the South, things like that,” says Nelson. Yet these “Africanisms,” to use the term of anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits (1895–1963), are not necessarily conscious. “Often they weren’t conscious,” he explains. “They become very self-conscious among a certain class of artists. . . starting in the 1960s.”

In the end, he explains, what’s at stake in trying to pin down diasporic influences is this: “What you call yourself isn’t always up to you. That’s the point: you don’t always get to decide.” Nelson has written of modern-day diasporas in the age of globalization as “a becoming” (i.e., not a permanent exile).* And he emphasizes that the diasporic connection between African and African American art lends itself well to the age of globalization.

Yet he contends that globalization is nothing new, especially for Africa. “We like to think of globalization as somehow a function of neoliberalism, a product of the 20th or 21st century,” he remarks. “But if you look at the world in, say, 1300, the part of the world that was not connected was the Western hemisphere. Africa was connected through sea trade routes, over land, with Europe, with the Indian Ocean. . . So you already had a globalized world that was in large part done in by the Black Death in the 1330s,” he says.

Multidisciplinary research

Nelson studied studio art as an undergraduate and worked as a graphic artist at newspapers for six years before deciding to do a Ph.D. in art history. He arrived at Harvard thinking that he would specialize in modern art, but his involvement in a search committee there for an African art specialist changed his path. The faculty member who was hired, Suzanne Preston Blier, eventually became his doctoral advisor and remains a cherished colleague.

After finishing his studies, Nelson went on to teach at Tufts University and Wellesley College before joining UCLA’s art history department in 2000. He has published widely on topics in contemporary and historic arts, the architecture and urbanism of Africa and its diasporas, African American art history and queer studies.

His first book, “From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture in and out of Africa” (Chicago, 2007), is an architectural history of the teleuk, the bee-hive-domed house constructed by the Mousgoum people of Chad and Cameroon. In addition to exploring its history and changing meaning for the Mousgoum, the book examines how the architectural structure has been interpreted across the world. The work received excellent reviews, as well as honorable mentions for two major book awards: the Arnold Rubin Book Award (2011) of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association and the Alice Davis Hitchcock Award (2009) of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Nelson’s current projects also approach their subjects from multiple perspectives. The UCLA professor is working on a staggering three projects: a “travelogue” about the Underground Railroad; a history of the city of Dakar, Sénégal; and an examination of the work of several African and African American artists who think about art and identity in geographic terms, whether in the form of geographical or conceptual mapping, or by a focus on place and people’s relationship to place.

“I think all of these books take their cues from art and architectural history, because that’s my training,” he remarks. “But then, once they start to roll, they become total polyglots.” His multidisciplinary research interests have won him a number of prestigious grants and fellowships, including from the Getty Research Institute, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Radcliffe and the W.E.B. Dubois Research Institute at Harvard University.

The book on the Underground Railroad is part of the Culture Trails series of the University of Chicago Press, which publishes travelogues written by academics. Nelson’s research on the Railroad began about the same time as work on the Affordable Care Act was ramping up, literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested and singer Michael Jackson died.

“The object lesson is that you can’t isolate slavery from race relations today, from other things that are going on,” he says. “In Alabama, for example, you’re not going to find all sorts of monuments to escaped slaves, but you will learn a lot about slavery. But you also learn about how odd and weird and complicated race relations were in the South at that time. And in the North, too.” The travelogue-cum-essay on race relations, entitled “On the Underground Railroad,” is expected to hit the market in 2017.

Dakar: The Making of an African Metropolis (working title) began as an examination of the city in the 1960s, when an explosion of infrastructure, an international art exhibition and Sénégalese filmmakers were transforming Dakar’s culture and space. The work has since grown into a multidimensional cultural history of the city from its founding in 1857 through roughly 2000, using different lenses (e.g., film, literature, art) to examine different time periods.

Nelson’s most recent project, Structural Adjustment: Mapping, Geography and the Visual Cultures of Blackness (to be published by Yale University Press), explores the work of African American artists Mark Bradford and Houston Conwill, Afro-Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and African artists Moshekwa Langa and Julie Mehretu. “Where they all come together,” he explains, “is in this sort of mode of thinking about art geographically. For some this is explicitly diasporic, and for others, it's not.” The work of Campos-Pons, for example, deals with her familial history in Cuba — her great-grandfather was a Yoruba from Nigeria who was enslaved — and the role of the diasporic female identity within that rubric.

Conwill, an African American artist, “is very self-consciously looking at African forms, African symbols and Haitian Vodou in his work,” says Nelson. Bradford, another American, is making actual maps based on his experience of growing up in South Central Los Angeles. The artist’s recent show at the Hammer Museum, "Scorched Earth," featured a few of these striking works.

Asked if having been an artist helps him write more clearly about artists and their work, Nelson replied, “I would not say more clearly. I would say that, like a diasporic person, an artist brings a different set of tools to the artwork. But there is something to be said for having had some experience with figuring out first-hand how materials work.” A scholar, it would seem, perfectly suited for his work.

*"Diaspora and Contemporary Art: Multiple Practices, Multiple Worldviews," in Companion to Contemporary Art since 1945 (Blackwell, 2006)

Published: Friday, November 20, 2015