Nell Irvin Painter Featured in Boston Review

Historians in the News
tags: Nell Irvin Painter, art, Boston Review

Nell Irvin Painter is an esteemed scholar of African American history and race, whose books include the New York Times bestseller The History of White People (2010). After retiring from Princeton University where she taught for several decades—and where her advisees included a generation of pathbreaking Americanists, including Walter Johnson, Stephen Kantrowitz, Crystal Feimster, and Chad Williams—Painter pursued a second bachelor’s degree in studio art at Rutgers University and then earned an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. Her memoir Old in Art School (2018) reflects on her experience as a sexagenarian art student after decades spent as a tenured, award-winning grand dame of the academy. The book was also the point of departure for two concurrent exhibitions of her artwork, Freedom from Truth: Self-Portraits of Nell Painter and Odalisque Atlas: White History as Told Through Art (October 7–November 7, 2019), which I mounted at Harvard in the arts exhibition space of the university’s newly remodeled student center.

Self-portraiture is central to Painter’s creative practice. She uses the act of creative self-reflection to explore her subjectivity as a black woman negotiating various aesthetic traditions. Painter describes the black body as a minefield, in which “every single line and volume carries social meaning.” In Freedom from Truth, some of the pieces are traditional self-portraits—life-like representations of Painter created by Painter herself—while others expand on traditional understandings of self-portraiture through digital manipulations, collage, and text.

Odalisque Atlas displayed all eight pieces from Painter’s Black Sea Composite series together for the first time. In this series, Painter reimagines the political boundaries of slavery and unpacks the origins of the word “slave,” whose etymology in most European languages traces to the enslavement of Slavs during the Middle Ages. Slavic peoples hail from many parts of Eastern Europe, including the Caucasus. But owing to the work of nineteenth-century scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who believed racial hierarchies were a feature of the natural world, “Caucasian” came to signify a person of European descent. In her Black Sea Composite series, Painter maps this complicated history of whiteness onto the geographies of Atlantic slavery.

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