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Charmaine Nelson

"My studies then became a quest to find myself and my ancestors in western art, and to understand the conditions and contexts of our representation"

When at the age of 19, I moved from Whitby, Ontario, to Montreal, Quebec, to study at Concordia University, I did not know that I would discover Art History -  a discipline which combined my love of research, writing, and the desire to examine and think about art. But I quickly realized that although I loved Art History, Art History did not love me. Indeed, completing my BFA in Art History entailed grappling constantly with the absence of myself. However, it was not a straightforward absence. My professors would, for instance, show artworks like the famous French artist, Edouard Manet's Olympia [1863] (a work that contains both an unclothed white female courtesan sitting on a bed and a fully-clothed black maid) without talking about the latter. To their credit, however, when I would ask about these omissions, I was always encouraged to pursue topics which focused upon black subjects. Without this encouragement and the confirmation that my questions were valid, I would likely have left the discipline.

My studies then became a quest to find myself and my ancestors in western art, and to understand the conditions and contexts of our representation, which have historically included Transatlantic Slavery. I went on to study in the field of Race and Representation, focusing on black female subjects. I completed my MA at Concordia in 1995 and my PhD at the University of Manchester (UK) in 2001, both in Art History. I did not immediately realize that, when I was hired into a tenure-track position at the University of Western Ontario the same year, I was the first black professor of Art History at a Canadian university. Unfortunately, today I still hold that honour.

Throughout my career, I have published six books, 15 book chapters, eight journal articles, and 10 other publications. I have also given over 180 lectures, conference papers, and keynote addresses across Canada and the U.S., and in England, Italy, Spain, the Caribbean, and Central America. Through it all, I have sought to create spaces for more Indigenous people and people of colour to enter the discipline, and to cultivate the work of exceptional students of all backgrounds who strive to create an ethical scholarly practice which illuminates the art of forgotten and under-examined populations and challenges the restricted boundaries of western art.


Charmaine Nelson is a professor of art history at McGill University.