Afrotropes: A User’s Guide

This essay is part of the Afrotropes series, which continues with the essay
“‘a salting of sorts’: Salt, Sea, and Affective Form in the Work of Deborah Jack” by C. C. McKee.

From Art Journal 76, nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 2017)

The term afrotropes is a neologism referring to those recurrent visual forms that have emerged within and become central to the formation of African diasporic culture and identity, whether the slave ship icon produced in 1788 by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain, the nineteenth-century lithograph of an enslaved muzzled woman that became the locus for the cult of Anastácia in Brazil in the 1970s, or the “I AM A MAN” signs famously held up by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.1 As their rich afterlives make clear, afrotropes resonate widely long after their initial appearance. For instance, the “I AM A MAN” sign has served as the basis for a 1988 painting by Glenn Ligon, a sandwich board worn by Sharon Hayes during a 2005 street performance, and a poster wielded by protesters in Benghazi during the Arab Spring in 2011. As this example suggests, afrotropes are often translated across various cultural domains as well as transformed over time and space, accruing particular density at certain moments and seeming to volatilize out of sight at others. Their circulation thus illuminates both how black subjects have imagined themselves and reconfigured the visual technologies of modern cultural formation and image transmission more broadly.

In theorizing the term, we have found inspiration in the linguistic theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualization of the chronotope, which “provides the ground for the showing-forth, the representability of events.”2 The chronotope—“literally, ‘time space’”—underlines “the intrinsic interconnectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed.” For Bakhtin, in the chronotope—and for us, in the afrotrope—“Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history.”3 In paying heed to Bakhtin, we also respond to Paul Gilroy’s later call for the study of “new chronotopes” that examine “key cultural and political artefacts in the transcultural formation of the Black Atlantic.”4 Our term is also meant to resonate with Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s pioneering work on troping or figurative turns in black cultural expression and with William Jeremiah Moses’s work on the formation of black intellectual histories in Afrotopia, sources that we aim to mobilize in studying visual modes of performative utterance.5

Returning to, taking up, and crosswiring these terms, we are particularly interested in how afrotropes materially transform as they circulate, appear, disappear, or remain latent in response to the differing social, political, and institutional conditions that inform the experiences of black peoples as well as changing historical perceptions of blackness. Afrotropes do not simply recur over time, but materialize and are about time—its passage and return, its negotiation or reconfiguration by African diasporic subjects. Indeed, these forms often appear communally authored, claimed, or selected, circulating in variously traceable networks and routes. Afrotropes have emerged or waited, quickened or slowed their pace of dissemination, often in response to circumstances that prevent them from taking shape or hinder their circulation. As such, they give form to that which has remained at times unspoken and unseen, enabling a fresh consideration of what is repressed or absented within the visual archive. Afrotropes, in other words, offer a vital heuristic through which to understand not only how visual motifs take on flesh over time, but also to reckon with that which remains unknown or cast out of the visual field. At the same time, afrotropes can function publicly and spectacularly, offering apotropaic means for averting, refracting, or turning against despotic visual regimes. In this way, afrotropes make palpable, as we have previously put it, how modern “black subjects have appropriated widely available representational means only to undo their formal contours, to break apart their significatory logic, or to reduce them to their very substance.”6

While afrotropes may assume any number of guises, the photographic medium has been a central mode of their construction, transformation, and contestation, perhaps because of the intertwined ontologies of blackness and the photographic, which both abet a kind of representational fixing and surface reading. By homing in on the various forms assumed by specific afrotropes, we hope to contribute to thinking on the ways in which modes of cultural transmission come to structure representational possibilities. In this ambition, our conceptualization of the afrotrope resonates with and builds on both classic and recent art historical scholarship—from George Kubler’s The Shape of Time to Christopher Wood and Alexander Nagel’s Anachronic Renaissance—that is concerned with elaborating the complex relationships between the temporal and the material.7 Among such texts, we have found T. J. Clark’s brief essay “More Theses on Feuerbach” to offer a particularly useful framework for thinking further about the afrotrope and its manifestation. “Form,” Clark argues, “is a way of capturing repetitiveness and making it human, making it ours—knowable and dependable”; it is “redundancy made safe,” “endlessness without malignancy,” a contingent vehicle in the search for truth.8

In their turn, these lines productively resonate with and depart from James Snead’s characterization of repetition in black culture: he emphasizes how change, often produced through accident, occasions a perpetual cutting back to the start within African diasporic cultures, at once engendering coverage and rupture.9 Hortense Spillers similarly investigates “‘transfers’ from one generation to another,” pondering whether certain markings of the flesh find their “various symbolic substitutions in an efficacy of meanings that repeat the initiating moments.”10 These and other touchstones of African diasporic studies offer productive models for extending and complicating art historical literatures on form: darkened and deformed through the lens of black history, an afrotropic analytic offers new insights into theories of the object, iconicity, the self, transmission, authorship, appropriation, and chronological narration.11

In 2016 we began collaborating with Art Journal on a series of essays that offer more granular considerations of specific afrotropes, in particular, their meanings, histories, and modalities of transmission. These articles highlight the mercurial flow of the afrotrope across the globe, whether they focus on things (such as chains or a wicker throne), personas (Bob Marley or Steve Biko), representations (like the “I AM A MAN” sign or a map of Africa), specific elements (sugar or salt), or particular visual effects (surface or shine). Rhyming with the distinct temporal and spatial modes of appearance and disappearance of the afrotrope, the articles will appear across time, at different intervals, rather than together as a special issue. Indeed, the very first essay in the series, by Emma Chubb, appeared last year; like the subsequent essays in the journal, including this issue’s contribution by Allison Young, Chubb’s text is marked with the word “afrotropes” colorfully enunciated against a black rectangular tab.12

In the coming years, we will continue to engage with numerous scholars working on and across distinct geographical and artistic areas of expertise. Their essays will expand and critically engage the afrotrope while laying bare how methodologies for investigating the concept are necessarily collaborative, reflecting the “collective intelligence”—to borrow a phrase from Cedric Robinson—that is central to making African diasporic histories and bringing them to light.13

Like the afrotrope itself, this text emerged over the course of ten years of collaborative writing, teaching, and presenting. Accordingly, this introduction draws on many of those sources: the description from our 2011 graduate seminar on the topic, our introductions to panels at the College Art Association and Caribbean Studies Association conferences (2016), the introduction to our special issue of Representations on New World slavery (2011), and a forthcoming interview in October. We are grateful to our audiences and interlocutors on each of these occasions, particularly our students. A special note of thanks goes to Art Journal editor Rebecca M. Brown for bringing this work into print.

Huey Copeland is an associate professor of art history and affiliated faculty in African American Studies, Art Theory and Practice, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and the Interdisciplinary Cluster in Critical Theory at Northwestern University. He is the author of Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (2013, University of Chicago Press).

Krista Thompson is a professor of art history at Northwestern University. She is the author of An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (2006) and Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (2015), and a recipient of the Charles Rufus Morey Award for distinguished book in art history from the College Art Association (2016).

  1. See Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson, “Perpetual Returns: New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual,” Representations 113 (Winter 2011): 1–15; Marcus Wood, “The Museu do Negro in Rio and the Cult of Anastácia as a New Model for the Memory of Slavery,” Representations 113 (Winter 2011): 111–47; and Hank Willis Thomas, “Artists’ Portfolios,” Representations 113 (Winter 2011): plate 2.
  2. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 250.
  3. Ibid., 84.
  4. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 4.
  5. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Signifying Monkey and the Language of Signifyin(g),” in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 44–88; Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  6. Copeland and Thompson, 10.
  7. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962); Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010).
  8. T. J. Clark, “More Theses on Feuerbach,” Representations 104 (Fall 2008): 4-5; 7.
  9. James A. Snead, “Repetition as Figure of Black Culture,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 212–30.
  10. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 67, emphasis in original. For more on the importance of Spillers’s work for conceptualizing the afrotropic, see Leah Dickerman, David Joselit, and Mignon Nixon, “Afrotropes: A Conversation with Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson,” October 162 (Fall 2017): 15–16.
  11. For a related investigation in this vein, see Nicole R. Fleetwood, On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
  12. Emma Chubb, “Small Boats, Slave Ship; or, Isaac Julien and the Beauty of Implied Catastrophe,” Art Journal 75, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 24–43; Allison Young, “Visualizing Apartheid Abroad: Gavin Jantjes’s Screenprints of the 1970s,” in the current issue of this journal.
  13. Cedric J. Robinson, “Preface to the 2000 Edition,” in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), xxx.