McGill University professor teaching art and visual culture of slavery at Harvard

McGill University professor teaching art and visual culture of slavery at Harvard

February 15, 2018

Being the only Black art history professor in Canada is overwhelmingly significant.

As just the second Black professor to hold the William Lyon Mackenzie King Chair for Canadian Studies and the second art historian to hold the post at Harvard University, Dr. Charmaine Nelson is in rare air.

Harvard University’s Studies of Women, Gender & Sexuality department nominated her for the Chair held in 2013-14 by Dr. George Elliott Clarke who is the only other Canadian to be appointed to the esteemed position.

“When I looked at the list of scholars, I could see that George was the only other Black person to ever have a Chair and, of course, he’s the only person of any race who has ever focussed on Black Canada to hold a Chair at Harvard,” she noted. “It’s tremendous to be in the same realm here with George whose career and contributions to the history of Black Canada are really well known and respected.”

Nelson is teaching courses in Canadian art and the visual culture of transatlantic slavery while enhancing her research on Canadian fugitive slave advertisements that are meticulous physical descriptions of enslaved people written by their owner that were used during auctions, sales or as notices of runaway slaves.

Harvard, for Nelson, is the ideal physical space to advance her scholarship.

“The reason it is desirable for scholars to come to Harvard is because their research community is so rich,” the McGill faculty member since 2003 noted. “On a daily basis, the number of scholars they invite in is incredible. As you can imagine, they invite the best of the best. It is a very stimulating research environment.”

At McGill, she teaches four courses annually in addition to performing heavy administrative duties. At Harvard, she’s teaching courses on Canada’s role in the transatlantic world and an introduction to historical Canadian art.

“What they do here is they deliberately free up your time so that you can focus on the research project and that is the basis which you get nominated and accepted to come here,” she pointed out.

Teaching Canadian slave history to American students, says Nelson, is both a challenge and an opportunity to educate.

“It’s not hard getting Americans to open their minds to slavery in Canada,” she said. “Most of them come in with some kind of background and knowledge on the transatlantic world and imperialism by countries like Britain and France. But they are surprised to learn about slavery in Canada because they too have been taught that Canada was the place where African-American enslaved people went to for freedom.

“At McGill, I teach a class called, 'Visual Culture of Slavery', and in that class, I usually have anywhere from 15 to 20 per cent of American students and their blind spot is the American North. In their own teachings back home in the United States, they have been taught that slavery exist only in the American South. So they are surprised to find out that slavery had been in places like Rhode Island and Massachusetts. So, it is understanding that both of our nations have these blind spots in terms of research and just general public knowledge.”

Having eminent scholars such as Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and Dr. Cornel West at Harvard which has one of the pre-eminent African and African-American studies program departments also makes the Ivy League university an attractive space for Nelson.

Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the Hutchins Centre for African and African-American Research and West holds a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School and the department of African and African-American studies as a professor of the practice of public philosophy, a title reserved for those who have made outstanding contributions in their professional fields.

“These are names that people across the globe know,” said Nelson. “I am here with them, so I have access to the conferences, lectures and other events they put on. I am surrounded by like-minded scholars for whom slavery is at the centre of their research. At McGill, there are very few of us that are focussed in this way. Here, I feel like I have an instant network and that network is constantly bringing in other people to visit and give lectures. Both McGill and Harvard students are brilliant, so it’s not necessarily a shift in the students and the calibre of how they can write research. It’s a shift in the research atmosphere, the intensity of it and also there are people who are working on what I am working on. You can’t under-estimate what that means to a scholar to have like-minded people at your doorstep.”

Nelson’s interest in Black Canadian history was sparked partly by her parents who migrated from Jamaica in 1959.

“As educated people, they instilled in me the love of learning,” she said. “I grew up in the 1970s in Durham region where I never had a Black teacher from the kindergarten to Grade 13 levels. The curriculum back then was worse than it is now in excluding people of colour and indigenous people. My parents gave me an alternative education in that they made clear to me the things that my formal education was leaving out. I also took art all the way to Grade 13 when most students were dropping that subject after Grade Nine.”

Things didn’t change much when Nelson enrolled in Concordia University’s art history program.

“I was interested in the absences that I perceived in our history because, at Concordia in the 1990s, I was usually the only Black student in the class or one of very few minorities in our history class,” she said.  “But the professors would show sometimes iconic images like the famous French artist Edouard Manet’s’ 'Olympia’, a work that contains both an unclothed White female on a bed and a fully-clothed Black maid. They would show things like this and not talk about the Black person in the painting and I would put my hand up and ask, ‘Why would he choose to have a Black maid as opposed to just two White women in the painting? My professors normally couldn’t answer the question but, to their credit, they said, ‘that’s a good question and please feel free to write a research paper on it’.

“So they encouraged me to pursue that and luckily in my pursuit of these questions that came from my identity, I realised there is a whole field called ‘race and representation’ where scholars were looking at exactly the representation of Black subjects in the Black Diaspora in western art. Most of those scholars were in the United States because the U.S had already established a field called ‘African-American Art History’ from around the 1940s.”

Earning undergraduate and Master’s degrees in art history at Concordia University, Nelson worked at the Canadian Art Museum in Ottawa before pursuing her PhD. at Queen’s University. She completed her doctorate at the University of Manchester in 2001 and joined the University of Western Ontario as the first Black person to be hired into a tenure-track art historian position in a Canadian University.

She has been at McGill, founded by James McGill who was a slave owner and fur trader, for the last 15 years.

Of the nearly 5,000 professors, there are just a handful who is Black and two indigenous faculty members.

“That, to me, is appalling in 2018,” Nelson, who chaired the 2010 equity sub-committee on race & ethnic relations for the Principal’s Task Force on diversity, excellence & community, said. “You have to actually try not to hire us to have numbers like that. But part of that too, of course, is that Canada doesn’t want to have a conversation about racism because, as Canadians, we don’t know our colonial history and we don’t know that slavery happened here. So if you try to talk about anti-Black racism to the average White Canadian, they don’t know what you are talking about and they think it’s some fiction you are creating. It’s because we have such a deficit of knowledge that people who aren’t experiencing racism want to tell you that it’s not occurring.

“But McGill then is this kind of weird bubble for those of us who are inside who are people of colour because although our scholarship is being disseminated widely and we are getting respect for it, sometimes we feel inside the institution that we are not respected for that scholarship and for the difference that our identity brings to our colleagues and the students.”

Nelson has published six books, including ‘Legacies Denied: Unearthing the Visual Culture of Canadian Slaveries’ that she edited.

The exhibition catalogue is the by-product of an ambitious exhibition that assembles an extraordinary group of art and visual culture objects of direct relevance to Trans-Atlantic slavery and it highlights the role of Canadian art and visual culture in producing, sustaining and contesting the enslavement of people of African descent and Natives in the territories that became Canada.

The two and three dimensional objects comprise runaway slave advertisements, maps, illustrated travel and national history books, prints, ceramics, photography and other works.

Her seventh book, ‘Towards an African-Canadian Art History: Art, Memory and Resistance’, is expected to be released later this year. The first publication to consolidate the field of African-Canadian art history, the book covers topics spanning a time frame from 1786 to now and brings together chapters on Black Canadian artists with others on the representation of Black subjects in Canadian art.

Nelson’s research and teaching interests include postcolonial and black feminist scholarship, Transatlantic Slavery and Black Diaspora Studies. Her scholarship examines Canadian, American, European, and Caribbean art and visual culture.

Her research and teaching explores various types of 'high'and 'low' art and popular art forms including TV, film, photography, prints, sculpture, painting, and dress. She also works across various genres including portraiture, still-life, nudes and landscape art. She has made ground-breaking contributions to the fields of the Visual Culture of Slavery, Race and Representation, Black Canadian Studies, and African Canadian Art History.

A few years ago, Nelson launched a website – – as a resource for Black Canadian Studies and a space to share her past, present and future research agendas and production.




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