The Carter G. Woodson Institute, U.Va.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute

for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia


My dissertation, Undesirability and the Value of Blackness in Contemporary Art, reconstitutes the terms by which we historicize artworks that take blackness and the black body as their subjects, particularly at a moment when “post-racial” aspirations collide with anti-black animus. Produced in the post-civil rights era by contemporary artists Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Xaviera Simmons, and Narcissister, the works I examine in my dissertation center on what I call undesirability, aesthetic strategies of repulsion (dismemberment, crudeness, and self-objectification among them), strategies that neither work to repair nor redeem the traumatic past of blackness. Black artists have long been expected to redress the collective trauma of slavery and its afterlife, an impetus that has historically circumscribed black artistic expression. However, key twenty-first century artworks by Walker, Mutu, Simmons, and Narcissister depart from this trend.  In figurations of grotesque female bodies, they defy long-held aesthetic philosophies and social norms about what constitutes “beauty,” “pleasure,” and the political value of blackness.

First Name: 
Pre-Doctoral Fellow (Art and Art History)
University of Rochester
Dissertation Title: 
"Undesirability and the Value of Blackness in Contemporary Art"