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Northwestern to convene international scholars on archiving Black arts

Mellon Foundation awards $225,000 to investigate challenges in translation

Northwestern University has been awarded a $225,000 Sawyer Seminar grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a series of seminars titled “The Black Arts Archive: The Challenge of  Translation.”Three transnational seminars and a summer institute are being planned for the 2020–21 academic year. The grant also will fund fellowships for two graduate students and a postdoctoral student. The Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminar awards provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments, primarily in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Mellon Foundation grant counts toward We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern.

“The Black Arts Archive” Sawyer Seminars will explore the challenges posed by disciplinary, political-economic and geographical contexts in documenting a history of Black art production and will seek to create models redressing concerns around archival access and translation.

The project will be led by E. Patrick Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of African American Studies and Performance Studies at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication.

“Given the current global political climate, it is imperative that Black arts social movements be documented in a systematic way and that these archives be made accessible — across artistic forms — to constituents in the African Diaspora,” Johnson said. “As we have witnessed, one natural disaster can destroy an entire history from the public record. Collaboration, coordination and communication are key to preserving these artists’, scholars’ and activists’ creativity and contributions to a crucially important global Black arts archive.”

Translation challenges

Recent African-diasporic social movements drawing on Black art tactics and strategies such as Black Lives Matter (U.S.), the Rhodes Must Fall movement (Capetown and Oxford) and Hurricane Maria (Puerto Rico) have demonstrated the effectiveness of groups thinking across geography, media and expressive arts.

“The Black Arts Archive” Sawyer Seminars will examine how Blackness offers both a platform for crossing linguistic differences and national borders, as well as a paradigm for the development of an ethics of arts grounded in Black experience while recognizing distinct political-economic contexts. The project is unique in its focus on translation across form, language and geography. It will look at archives — both as repositories of history and as practices for the documentation of contemporary and future work — to discover similarities and differences across the globe in the ways Black arts are historicized, memorialized, preserved or forgotten in different locations.The project will bring together scholars and artists from the Caribbean, Capetown and the U.S. to better understand the challenges of Black arts scholars and artists working in varying forms and sites, allowing for the development of models to rectify challenges and concerns historically, materially, theoretically and institutionally.

Project leadership

The co-conveners of the Sawyer Seminars represent an interdisciplinary cross-section of artist-scholars at Northwestern including project lead Johnson; Ramón Rivera-Servera, professor and department chair of performance studies at the School of Communication; Huey Copeland, associate professor and the Arthur Andersen Teaching and Research Professor, department of art history at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences; Krista Thompson, the Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art History at Weinberg; and Aymar Christian, associate professor, department of communication studies, department of radio/ television/film at the  School of Communication.

Seminar topics and partners

“The Black Arts Archive” Sawyer Seminars will be presented in three parts with regional focuses on Chicago, the Caribbean and South Africa. Scholars, artists and graduate students from each region will be invited to present. A culminating summer institute will reflect on the year and present manifestations of artistic and scholarly production in the form of performances, installations and papers.

Partner institutions will include the University of Western Cape, the University of the Bahamas, the University of Puerto Rico and multiple Chicago academic and arts institutions.

About the “We Will” Campaign

The funds raised through the “We Will” Campaign are helping realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidifying the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities. More information on We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern is available at

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