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Aubrey Williams: Abstraction in Diaspora

Research Seminar – Kobena Mercer

  • 4 October 2017
  • 6:00 – 8:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

Moving to London in 1952, Aubrey Williams gained valuable distance on the Amerindian petroglyphs that inspired his abstract painting. But as he deepened his engagement with the indigenous cultures of the precolonial Caribbean during the 1970s—working in studios in Jamaica and in Florida—Williams was edged out of late modernism’s narrative of abstraction. While retrospective exhibitions highlight the Olmec-Maya and Now series and the Shostakovich series produced during William’s circumatlantic journeys, both of which heighten abstraction as a medium of cross-cultural translation, the scholarship has left Williams isolated. Approaching Williams’s abstraction in the interpretive context of Black Atlantic “ancestralism,” a distinctive framework addressing the diaspora’s unrecoverable past, I suggest his Amerindian focus is best understood in terms of a “hauntological” mode of abstraction critically responsive to the moment of decolonization in which boundaries that once defined the national, the international, and the transnational were being thrown into crisis. 


Listing image credit: Aubrey Williams, Death and the Conquistador, 1954. Tate Gallery (T13341). © The estate of Aubrey Williams

About the speaker

  • Mercer Headshot

    Kobena Mercer is Professor of History of Art and African American Studies at Yale University, where he teaches modern and contemporary art in the Black Atlantic, examining  African American, Caribbean, and Black British artists with critical methods from cultural  studies. He is the author of monographic studies of James VanDer Zee, Romare Bearden and Adrian Piper,  Isaac Julien and Rotimi Fani-Kayode, and he edited the Annotating Art’s Histories series whose titles are Cosmopolitan Modernisms [2005], Discrepant Abstraction[2006], Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures[2007], and Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers[2008]. Mercer previously taught at New York University and the University of California–Santa Cruz and was an inaugural recipient of the 2006 Clark Prize for Excellence in Art Writing awarded by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts. His most recent book is his essay collection Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s [2016].