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Kobena Mercer

Born, 1960 in Ghana

British writer Kobena Mercer is a hugely important independent voice who has contributed enormously to the scholarship on visual culture and Black artists. His work has taken the form of articles, essays, monographs and other authored works, most recently perhaps, a distinguished series of publications copublished by by inIVA and MIT Press, which he has edited and to which he has contributed significant texts. These publications - issued over the course of the first decade of the 21st century - were: Cosmopolitan Modernisms (2005), Discrepant Abstraction: Annotating Art’s Histories (additional contributions by Stanley K. Abe, Mark Cheetham, and David Clarke, (2006), Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures (2007), and Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers (2008). For Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, Mercer contributed an Introduction plus the chapter Adrian Piper, 1970-1975: Exiled on Main Street. For Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, Mercer contributed an Introduction plus the chapter Tropes of the Grotesque in the Black Avant-Garde. Likewise, he contributed chapters to the other volumes in the series.

In 1994 Mercer published an important collection of texts in the book Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (the cover of which was illustrated with a reproduction of one of Keith Piper’s works from the mid 1980s). As with many of Mercer’s earlier writings, the book did much by further establish the writer as an intellectual who brought clarity, and an insistent sense of probing and enquiry, to the subjects he tackled and addressed. Furthermore, Mercer adopted something of a lateral approach to his subject matter. He explored issues of Black masculinity and sexuality, alongside issues of the cultural politics of Black hair; issues of the framing of the Black image in the broadcast media alongside deconstructions of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video; issues of the intersections of visual arts practice with racial identity alongside critiques of the notion of authenticity, the burden of representation and so on.

Mercer has authored numerous catalogue essays, thereby demonstrating an enviable grasp of the nature of contemporary art practice in its assorted manifestations, alongside a notable familiarity with the key makers and practitioners in various fields and, just as importantly, across continents. Not only has Mercer been able to inform wider audiences and readership about particular artists, art movements, cultural phenomena and so on, but he has been able to do so with a questioning and a critiquing which has become something of his trademark.

Mercer was awarded a BA in Fine Art from St Martin’s School of Art, London, in 1981. He also holds a doctorate in Sociology, from Goldsmiths College, University of London (1990). He has held numerous academic posts at universities on both sides of the Atlantic. He was Reader in Art History and Diaspora Studies at Middlesex University, London, and has taught at New York University and University of California at Santa Cruz, and has received fellowships from Cornell University, as well as being associated with a number of other important institutions.

In 1997, Mercer provided the main body of text for Keith Piper’s major mid-career retrospective hosted by inIVA at the Gulbenkian Galleries at the Royal College of Art, London. The monograph relating to the exhibition, Relocating the Remains, was divided into several chapters. Witness at the Crossroads: An Artist’s Journey in Post-colonial Space; Art’s Histories and Culture’s Geographies: 1979 - 1985; Twilight of the Dread Heteropolis: 1986 - 1990; Anatomies of the Body Politic, Its Central Nervous System: 1991 - 1996; Coda: Tomorrow Never Knows. The catalogue was extensively illustrated, not only with examples of Piper’s work, but also of a number of works by other artists, as a way of locating Piper’s work in a variety of contexts and illustrative of a number of the artist’s influences. This strategy was typical of Mercer, whose approach to discussing artists’ practice is to seek to place it, critically, into a range of significant contexts.

Witness the perceptiveness, clarity and multi-stranded articulation in one of Mercer’s opening paragraphs in the Piper monograph: “What distinguishes Piper’s use of digital multi-media is his reflexive approach to the questions of power and knowledge intrinsic to the use of visual technologies in surveillance and policing strategies that seek social control over the burgeoning chaos of urban space. Surveillance: Tagging the Other (1991) examines the ways in which black male identities have come to be targeted by the criminalising code of the photo-fit profile, and hence extends the investigation into coercive policing previously addressed in The Next Turn of the Screw (1987) and Adventures Close to Home (1987). Both of these works were motivated by responses to specific events, namely the militarised police actions that sparked off civil disorder in Britain in 1985, and which, like the riots/uprisings in Brixton and Toxteth before them, came to symbolise the centrality of ‘race’ to the society’s consciousness of itself as a post-imperial nation.” (1)

Two years earlier, Mercer had written a piece for Frieze magazine on the then rapidly-rising art world star, Yinka Shonibare. Since the publication of that piece, in 1995, Shonibare has been the subject of an almost countless number of essays, reviews, and other texts. But such is the measure of Kobena’s piece that nearly a decade and a half after it was written, it still has an enduring relevance and resonance. “Poised between two cultures and enjoying every minute of it, Yinka Shonibare produces a playful and inquisitive art out of ironies that arise when the postmodern and the postcolonial collide. Since graduation he has fused scepticism, modesty and wit in a desire to reinvent painting as a point of public dialogue and visual pleasure.” (2)

In the ‘Notes on Contributors’ section of Emergency magazine (undated, circa 1986), Kobena Mercer is described as “a part-time sex symbol (black male) who lives and works in New Cross.”

For the Transforming the Crown catalogue (1997), Mercer supplied the essay Bodies of Diaspora, Vessels of Desire: The Erotic and the Aesthetic. Mercer spoke at the Shades of Black conference held at Duke University, 19 - 22 April 2001. His paper, Iconography after Identity (part of the “Approaches to Diasporic Aesthetics and the Role of Criticism” panel) is reproduced in Part One of the book Shades of Black, subtitled Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain.

Mercer wrote the second of three reviews of Documenta 11, published in Frieze, issue 69, September 2002, totalling 14 pages (pp. 80 - 93). The reviews, all liberally illustrated, were written by Thomas McEvilley, Kobena Mercer and Dan Fox.

Mercer, was for a time a Reader in Diaspora Studies in the Department of Visual Culture and Media at Middlesex University. He contributed a chapter - “Diaspora Didn’t Happen in a Day”: Reflections on Aesthetics and Time - to “Black” British Aesthetics Today. Published by: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. (Within the text, Mercer erroneously stated that Chris Ofili “won the 2002 Turner Prize”. The year was in fact 1998).

Mercer is currently Professor, History of Art and African American Studies, at Yale University. A review of his 2016 book, Travel and See (Duke University Press, 2016) was written by University of Texas at Austin graduate student Uchenna Itam, and published at shiftjournal.org/networks/travel-and-see/

(1) [These two exhibitions were collaborations with Donald Rodney.] Kobena Mercer, Witness at the crossroads: An Artist’s journey in Post-colonial Space, in Keith Piper: Relocating the Remains. inIVA, 1997, p. 15.

(2) Kobena Mercer, Art That is Ethnic in Inverted Commas: Kobena Mercer on Yinka Shonibare, Frieze magazine, November/December 1995, pp. 38 – 41.


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London, United Kingdom