Office Hours with… Nana Adusei-Poku
It was a 2006 exhibition focused on melancholy in Western Art at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin that planted a seed for Nana Adusei-Poku thinking about how grief, mourning, and sadness are expressed by artists of the African Diasporas.
“No artists of color were included in the exhibition,” she said.
Having curated a well-received exhibition entitled “Black Melancholia” at Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art last year, Adusei-Poku, an assistant professor in the history of art and African American studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is now pursuing a book on the subject.
A German/Dutch-Ghanian, Adusei-Poku is also interested in art from the various Black diasporas and how curatorial practices help shape historical discourses.
In the latest edition of “Office Hours,” a Q&A series that introduces new Yale faculty members to the broader community, she discusses why she’s excited to be at Yale, how the study of Black melancholia meets the moment, and her love of water.
|Assistant professor in the History of Art and African American Studies
|University of California, Berkeley
|Started at Yale
You’ve studied or worked in about half a dozen different countries. How has that impacted the way you approach your work?
Nana Adusei-Poku: One thing I have learned is that you must be very precise when it comes to talking about different diasporas. I was born into the Black German diaspora. When I was living in the U.K., I was in a different diaspora. And the same when I was living in the Netherlands. Each of them has different discourses going on around Blackness but also significant similarities.
Tell me more about Black melancholia.
Adusei-Poku: It’s a very timely project, given that anti-Blackness cannot be denied since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests around the killing of George Floyd. Like in the case of Emmett Till, the awareness for collective Black loss and grief was acknowledged again. In the wake of these developments, Black studies and the Black radical tradition consistently emphasized anti-Blackness and its resulting gratuitous violence, which gave the discipline its own melancholic outlook.
In 2018, I did a curatorial performance project at the Academy of Arts in Berlin called “Performances of No-thingness,” inspired by the work of Fred Moten, a leading figure in Black studies. It was all about performativity and a questioning of normative orders, sadness, grief, and living with death.
Two things started to come together. The prevailing melancholy that was evoked by Black studies discourses and the ways in which this melancholy has been expressed by Black artists. Are they pushing the form further? And how does the consistent anti-Blackness shape the work of Black artists?
Who is an artist who particularly interests you for this project?
Adusei-Poku: Augusta Savage, a sculptress from the Harlem Renaissance who was very active in the early 20th century. The reason why I’m so fascinated by her is that not only can you see in her biography how anti-Blackness consistently made it impossible for her to work, but also we don’t have many of her works left. They are only represented through photographs and yet she was a formative figure of a modernist movement.
One reason why I’m so happy to be here at Yale is that we have this incredible archive in the Beinecke [Rare Book & Manuscript Library] and the Yale Art Gallery Collection that’s like a treasure for people who are interested in Black artists from New York in the early 20th century.
Anything else you’re particularly excited about now that you’re here?
Adusei-Poku: Yes, next year, the book I edited, “Reshaping the Field: Arts of the African Diasporas on Display,” will be the textbook for a seminar, “Black Exhibition Histories.” I think there is no other course in the entire country that looks at this very specific field with this focus.
What are you interested in outside of work?
Adusei-Poku: I love going to farmers’ markets and making feasts for my friends. I’m a good cook. And I’m a water person. I love going to the ocean, a swimming pool, a lake — it doesn’t matter. In the summertime, you will find me close to the water.