Arts, Ancestry and Culture (Introduction) – Johnnetta Cole


Johnnetta Cole:
Good afternoon. My name is Johnnetta Betsch Cole. I have the extraordinary honor and joy
of serving as the director of the National Museum of African Art here at the Smithsonian.
So I want to begin by greeting you all as my fellow Africans. [laughter] There have been points of disagreement, healthy
intellectual debate beginning with this morning’s panel, but on this, I trust we could agree.
If we can just go back far enough, we’re all Africans. And I can kind of figure — [applause] — the sooner white folk claim that, the better
the world is going to be. [laughter] So, as you know, today, this symposium has
been about some pretty fundamental questions: Who are you? Who I am? Who is everybody? And
I use those questions because I’m really inspired by an African expression that says, “I am
because you are, and you are because I am.” So today’s symposium is about identity, it
is about memory, it is about connectedness among us, and it is about too many divisions
separating us. It’s also been about, and will continue through the rest of the day, it’s
about what we can learn from human biology, from genetics, from the health sciences, from
history, and from anthropology. What we can learn about ourselves as a single bunch of
folk. But especially today we’ve been interested in what these fields can teach us about African-Americans
and about the people of the African diaspora. I think this symposium is also about how we
humans misunderstand, and misuse, and purposefully wield [spelled phonetically] so-called race
in the acts of bigotry, racism, and oppression. So what’s all of this got to do with the visual
arts, with music, with the spoken word, with dance, with theater? Well, not to worry, we
have a panel to wrestle with that question. What I’ve asked of these extraordinary folk,
three amazing and graced-filled women, and one righteous man, what I’ve asked is that
each would, in fact, begin to wrestle with these questions by introducing herself or
himself through their own work. And so we will first have Dr. Cheryl Finley, associate
professor and director of Visual Studies in the Department of History and Art at Cornell
University. Cheryl’s research interests are extremely
wide and deep. She is interested in African-American and African diasporic art history and visual
culture. She’s interested in cultural memory. She’s interests in African architecture. She’s
interested in so many questions. But I’ll tell you what I’m interested in, and I just
asked her, I’m interested in knowing, when her work on the iconic slave ship will be
published, and she said, “It’s a coming.” Following Cheryl Finley, we have asked Carla
Williams to wrestle with some questions by sharing a bit from her work. Assistant professor
at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Cheryl is a writer, an editor, photographer.
For many of us, we just cannot stop associating her, and we never will, with that path-breaking
work that she did with Deborah Willis, “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History.” And then we will hear from Dr. Mendi Lewis,
Dr. Mendi Lewis Obadike, okay, excuse me, Obadike. Now I’m not going to resist, I’m
going to say it: She’s a Spelman graduate. But Mendi went on from Spelman; she is now
an associate professor in Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt University. Someone said
Mendi makes literature, art, and music. And then Keith Obadike, the first African-American
to earn a MFA in sound design from Yale. He currently teaches in the College of Arts and
Communications at William Paterson University. Keith and Mendi together make conceptual Internet
art and sound artworks. So what’s art, literature, music, theater dance, what’s it all got to
do with the major topics of this symposium? Sister Dr. Cheryl, would you begin?

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