Interview: Zamansele Nsele, Assistant Professor, Modern and Contemporary African & African Diasporic Art

person looking at the camera
April 18, 2023

The Division of Arts & Humanities at UC Berkeley is pleased to welcome professor Zamansele Nsele as of Jan. 1, 2023. Nsele is an assistant professor in the History of Art Department, where she specializes in modern and contemporary African & African diasporic art, and holds a faculty position at the Center for African Studies. 

To learn more about professor Nsele’s research and teaching excellence, read Nsele’s interview with Stella Kotik. (Questions are formatted in heading 3 font and answers follow in regular format.)

Your first book that you co-edited and contributed to, The Imagined New (or what happens when History is a Catastrophe?) Working through Alternative Archives: Art, History, Africa, and the African Diaspora, was published last year. What was the inspiration behind this project? How did this process influence your upcoming book project, which is to focus on the citationality and curatorial adaptation of the Black literary tradition into visual art?

This book culminates from a workshop collaboratively hosted by the University of Johannesburg and Brown University. Across the two spaces, leading scholars, curators and artists in the field of Black visual art in Africa and in the diaspora —engaged in curated conversations and interdisciplinary engagements related to questions of history, performance, archives and the alternative imaginations of the Radical Black Tradition. What makes this book current and significant  is that it contributes to a rising scholarship in global blackness studies that has a strong focus on Global South Black perspectives. It is the interdisciplinary perspective of this book project that is particularly rich and inspiring to me. There is not yet a fully-fledged practice and genre of theorizing and writing a mode of art history that engages with a black visual art practice that is informed by the Black literary tradition. Here in the US for instance, Ralph Ellison’s unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man has emerged as subject of figuration and disfiguration in the works of contemporary visual artists such as Ming Smith and Kerry James Marshall. Over the last 7 years, in South Africa art exhibitions have been curated based on canonical literary texts such K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams.What is happening here is not just a visual illustration of literary tropes, I am excavating deeply layered conceptual themes that are being cited, engaged and given a new life within the realm of visual art.

In your bio, your research and writing interests are centered around the critique of image-based rituals of anti-Black violence and critical theories of Blackness in visual art. How are these themes influencing your upcoming first monograph, Reckoning with Post-Apartheid & Imperialist Nostalgias in Archival Art Practice in Africa?

Often, when collective forms of nostalgia are invoked within societies that have living histories of white supremacy and imperialism; what is romanticized and eventually obscured is black dispossession and suffering. In my upcoming book, I engage the artworks of contemporary artists in Africa;  who visually reference the imperial and settler colonial photographic archive  in ways that reveal how photography as a medium can sanitize,  romanticize and eventually obscure black suffering—rendering indiscernible. This element harks back to the myth that black bodies are insensate to pain and extreme violence. It is no secret that photography has also historically operated as a tool for racial objectification and consumption. In my work, I use transnational theories of Blackness from the African continent and the diaspora mainly in the United States—to critique both modern and contemporary visual  modes of anti-black violence.

You are teaching an undergraduate seminar course this spring titled Black Consciousness & The Black Arts Movement: Mid-Twentieth Century Resistance Art Movements in Southern Africa and the United States, which centers on engaging the visual traditions of resistance art movements between Southern Africa and the United States. What themes and artists are you particularly excited about teaching to your students?

In the class, in a comparative way, we delve into  the layered dynamics of the Black aesthetic underpinning mainly  but not exclusively  Black art collectives in the 1960’s and 70’s.  These are art collectives such as the Medu Art Ensemble, AfriCobra, Where We At and Spiral  to name a few. For instance, the Medu Art Ensemble  is a collective of multiracial and multinational anti-apartheid artists who operated in Botswana. It was composed of  artists who were also freedom fighters, this intersection of visual art and politics is quite exciting to teach about. Inspired by Black consciousness, decolonisation and free jazz— these art collectives come into formation with the goal to not just resist against prevailing forms of racial domination at the time— but in a compelling way, they experiment with creating a new black visual language that responds directly to their immediate conditions while also imagining Black freedom. In 1977, many of the artists from the art collectives I have mentioned gathered in Lagos at  FESTAC’77; a  Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The photography that came out of that gathering is quite moving and stunning, to a point where some students have been  inspired to purchase their own copies of art books where these photographs are featured.

You are a co-convener of the Gerard Sekoto Winter/Summer school that is administered through the Johannesburg Art Gallery. How does this experience translate into the classroom, particularly your current course on mid-twentieth-century resistance art movements in Southern Africa and the United States?

Many of the participants at the Gerard Sekoto Winter/Summer  school are  community based artists, local art students and diverse members of the community  who are  interested in topics within Black visual studies but don't have prior experience with these topics in their education. One of the fundamental skills that I got to hone; was the ability to select theoretically accessible and thematically relevant texts that would engage  the artwork and exhibitions that would be on display at the museum. In this way, the exhibitions were activated thematically and theoretically, in a sustained way to people who were not necessarily university going people.

What teachings are you most excited to bring into the classroom to the History of Art department this year?

While not losing sight of geographically specific elements and details; I am quite energized about exploring the ideas and transnational signifiers connected to ‘global blackness’ in both modern and contemporary visual art, this is definitely a framework that I am excited about bringing into the classroom.

Are there any upcoming projects or events you’d like to share with the Berkeley community?

In the Spring of 2024, my colleague Dr. Ivy Mills and I are co-teaching a traveling Stronach graduate seminar on ‘Contemporary African Art’. We will take the entire graduate class to the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal. ‘African Modernisms in America’ is an exhibition that is currently travelling around the USA, I contributed three biographies on South African black modernist painters for its its catalogue. Although it won’t come directly to California, but right now it is on display at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St Louis, following that, it will move to the Philips Colleciton, in Washington, DC (October 7 – January 7, 2024), and the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH (February 10 – May 19, 2024). 

In the fall, I am leading an undergraduate seminar on ‘African Modernisms: The Black Visual Arts and Cultures of Pan-Africanism & Negritude across continents’.

What exhibitions or projects do you recommend UC Berkeley students look out for in the Bay Area — currently or in the future?

Kehinde Wiley’s Archeology of Silence currently on display at the De Young museum. Aindrea Emelife’s Black Venus group exhibition at the Museum of African diaspora—this exhibition is quite significant because it is partly based on the visual trajectory of the Black South African woman: Saartjie Baartman. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby and Vanessa Jackson’s Alexandre Dumas’s Afro: Blackness Caricatured, Erased, and Back Again on display at BAMPFA and the African film festival also at BAMPFA in the fall 2023.

Zamansele Nsele is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary African & African Diasporic Art and holds a PhD in Art History & Visual Culture from Rhodes University in South Africa (2020). In 2020, she was appointed as a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Previously, Nsele was a lecturer in Design Studies and Art History & Visual Culture at Rhodes University (2014–20). Nsele’s research concerns post-Apartheid visual culture, archival art, and literature in relation to Blackness and the Black body through critical race theory, Black feminism, and post-1994 literature on nostalgia. In 2018, Nsele was awarded a College Art Association-Getty Foundation International Grant, which enabled her to present her research at Vanderbilt University and the Parsons School of Design (both 2019). Nsele has also presented her research at conferences and other prestigious venues, including Rutgers University, the University East Anglia, and the University of Namibia. Upon invitation by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Highway Africa, Nsele served as guest curator for the Albany Museum’s On the Frontline exhibition (2015).