3 Things with Matthew Rarey

How the Oberlin professor uses art history to tell new stories about the African diaspora.

January 31, 2024

Communications Staff

Matthew Rarey.
In early 2024, Matthew Rarey won the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Book Award for his first book, “Insignificant Things: Amulets and the Art of Survival in the Early Black Atlantic.”
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Matthew Rarey researches and teaches the art history of the Black Atlantic, with a focus on connections between West Africa, Brazil, and Portugal from the 17th through 21st centuries. It’s a path he first encountered in an African art history course as an undergrad at the University of Illinois.

“I realized African art history was asking all these formative questions—about race, gender, colonialism, diaspora, and personhood—that I felt weren’t just important to the discipline; they were important to understanding the world,” he says.

Chair of Oberlin’s Art History Department and an associate professor of African and Black Atlantic art history, Rarey is deeply focused on curating African and Black Atlantic art histories. He co-curated the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s 2019-20 exhibition Afterlives of the Black Atlantic, which won an Award of Excellence from the Association of Art Museum Curators.

Now Rarey’s work is in the spotlight again: This year, he won the College Art Association’s prestigious Charles Rufus Morey Book Award for his first book, Insignificant Things: Amulets and the Art of Survival in the Early Black Atlantic (Duke University Press, 2023). It traces the history of the African-associated amulets made and carried as tools of survival by enslaved people from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

We asked Rarey to share three things about how he uses art history to tell new stories about the African diaspora. Here’s what he had to say.

1) “Western” art history is deeply entangled with Black Atlantic art history.

African art and artists have always been instrumental to the development of visual culture of the so-called “West.” One great example I often teach with is at Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum: an ivory saltcellar carved around 1500 by a Sapi artist who worked in what is now Sierra Leone. It was commissioned by Portuguese traders active on the West African coast, and its design demonstrates the artist’s strategic negotiation of Sapi and Portuguese aesthetics. The traders—some of whom eventually initiated into Sapi society—later took the saltcellar to Lisbon and displayed it as a prestige object. Keep in mind that by 1550 Lisbon also had a large, diverse Black population who forged lives at all levels of Portuguese society. Categories like “African” and “European” don’t seem helpful to me in describing the saltcellar and the worlds it moved through. Rather, I’m interested in exploring how Black art and artists routinely challenge or upend efforts to categorize them by revealing the longstanding circulations of African and European visual culture in the wider Atlantic world.

2) Black Atlantic art history demands creative, ethical approaches.

Consider the amulets discussed in my book, which I think are critical to understanding Black Atlantic art history. Often made by Africans enslaved in Brazil, these small pouches had the power to protect their users from violence. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of these amulets existed in the 1700s. Today only two known examples survive—and only because they were confiscated as part of the Portuguese Inquisition by officials who declared the amulets evil and sacrilegious. How can we look to these objects to understand the lives of their makers while also reckoning with the violent histories that made them available as objects of study? To me, these questions are what makes Black Atlantic art history exciting and important: It demands we come up with innovative ways to tell ethical stories from small, fragmentary sources.

3) Contemporary artists rewrite history.

Though my book is primarily about the 1700s, I teach and write about a lot of contemporary artists. That’s because Black artists throughout the diaspora—like María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Ayana V. Jackson, Jaime Lauriano, Fabiola Jean-Louis, and Rosana Paulino, just to name a few—all engage historical documents and archival sources in their work. Their artistry reckons with, and calls out, the dominant ways history and art history have been written to obscure Africans’ lives. And often, what the archival sources obscure—and what the artists want to help us see—are the anti-racist and egalitarian worlds that enslaved people have always fought to bring into being.

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