In today’s post, Julia Wallace Bernier, a regular contributor to Black Perspectives, interviews Dr. Kelli Morgan, a curator, educator, and social justice activist who specializes in American art and visual culture. Her scholarly commitment to the investigation of anti-blackness within those fields has demonstrated how traditional art history and museum practice work specifically to uphold white supremacy. In 2014, Morgan earned her PhD in Afro-American studies and a graduate certificate in public history–museum studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2017. Dr. Morgan has held curatorial positions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She has held teaching positions at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University, Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan where she merged the classroom and the museum gallery to create various anti-racist paradigms for how curators can actively address the complexities of traditional art history, community engagement, and scholarly innovation. She begins her new position as Professor of the Practice and Director of Curatorial Studies at Tufts University on September 1.
Julia Wallace Bernier: Can you tell us about your journey to art history and curatorial work?
Kelli Morgan: I say that I came to art history through the back door when no one was looking. My interest came through the study of African American art and art history through a Black Studies lens which allowed me to see my grandparents’ interest in art as my first real introduction.
They were always interested in art even without the means to buy it. They would clip pictures by Monet and Van Gogh out of newspapers. My grandmother cut Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson out of the newspaper and framed it in their Detroit home. I didn’t know who Picasso or Van Gogh was until I started actually studying art in college and I was like oh wow!
My grandad brought home National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine from work and we would flip through them together. We would look at decorative arts, like a French tea service, and he would say what does this remind you of? I would say I don’t know. Then he would ask what about your grandmother’s teapot? My grandmother’s stuff was modern, but I put the two things together. He helped me see that art was not something that was just located in white America or European culture. It was something that everyone had access to and it was something that we participated in in our own household.
I loved to go up in the attic and just ramble through stuff. They had all this cool stuff from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Roller skates and coke bottles. I was just in heaven. I found it all fascinating because it was old. My granddad would come up and say what are you doing up here? I’d say look at all this old stuff! He would tell me about them – how the roller skates were my mom’s, how he collected the coke bottles from different places he traveled. It was fascinating to hear him connect these objects to their lives. It was more material culture than art, but that was really where my interest began.
This personal history really makes clear the origins of my curatorial practice and belief that lack of access does not mean lack of knowledge or appreciation. We never went to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). The museum was not a space for us. My grandparents were from the South, where museums were segregated. I don’t think it dawned on granddad to even try to visit the DIA. He would always say I can’t get you there, but I need you to know that you can be there. Now, as a curator of American art, I find it so odd that collections don’t tell these stories even when the objects clearly hold these histories. So, I decided to tell them myself. The institutions I’ve worked for responded so negatively to me doing so, which revealed that something is truly wrong with art museums and art history itself. I’ve decided to illuminate and eliminate that wrong to build something better in its place.
JWB: You’re working on a book about what you call “Black feminist visuality” in the work of Black women artists in the United States like Edmonia Lewis to contemporary artists like Kara Walker. How do you understand the role of art in Black women’s intellectual thought and activism across time?
KM: Throughout history we can see how the taxonomy of the human was shaped by how white colonizers imagined Black women only as pathological objects, people who were never allowed to be subjects. In the nineteenth century, artists and activists like Sojourner Truth, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, and Edmonia Lewis were using the visual field in very specific ways to communicate Black womanhood. These women used the stage, sculpture, and photography to assert themselves as seeing subjects, as autonomous subjects who could see and craft themselves and shape that vision for others.
My concept of Black feminist visuality considers how these performative processes of self-making—the concepts of autonomy and subjectivity—and the centrality of personal empowerment constitute an artistic methodology that centers Black women’s material reality to define the Black woman as a seeing subject, her place as American artist, and her identity within the broader Western visual field.
In part, my understanding of this process comes from using Black Studies and Cultural Studies methodologies to put these artists in conversation with each other as artists. I understand Sojourner Truth as an artist in ways that other scholars may not, because she’s using photography to craft an image of herself as she wants the world to see her. She picks that fabric, she has those dresses made, she poses with her knitting. I’m also thinking about the particular Black abolitionist context these artists are creating in. For instance, I explore Edmonia Lewis’ work and connections to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and William Still, rather than her time in Boston with William Lloyd Garrison. Traditional art history, and even the narrative within African American art history, may not consider all of these figures as visual artists, but to me it’s clear they are, partly through this context that clarifies the connections between their work.
My book demonstrates that a clear understanding of the nature of Black women’s visual art is essential to understanding not only American visual culture, but also the many circumstances—historical, social, political, and cultural—of the communities out of which modern and contemporary American art emerges. The art world has been so enamored with Black contemporary art, so I’m really trying to show that Black women have been doing amazing conceptual work in fine art since the nineteenth century and that the visual field has always been central to Black women’s realities and intellectual prowess. I wanted to offer the field something that places artists like Elizabeth Catlett and Kara Walker within a much longer conversation of Black women’s intellectual history. I wanted to offer something like Uri McMillian’s Embodied Avatars or Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent, but looking specifically at fine art.
JWB: You’ve been involved in a number of efforts to push museums to reckon with their role as sites of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and settler colonialism. In the current context of reparations, abolition, and Land- Back movements, how can we rethink museums? Can we? What is the future of these institutions?
KM: Honestly, the future looks bleak. I no longer believe that museums can be reformed. They have to be dismantled. The histories of colonialism and imperialism are the foundations upon which they currently stand and nothing truly collective and healthy can emerge from that. We have to build something completely new and that transition will not be pretty or short. I say all the time that we have to be brave enough to let them fail. After what I witnessed, and frankly survived, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, I have no faith in any major museum’s claim to be invested in equity.
It’s fascinating to me to see how people so actively resist change. Museums are frozen in time. They are anti-human and so disconnected from the human experience. You have to do more than just change the art. We have to create interventions that shift the whole culture of art history and museums. It’s an ecosystem that upholds itself. Each layer has to be undone.
When anti-racist work is done correctly this is what happens. You do the work and the institution exposes itself. Things start bursting at the seams. This is what happened at Newfields this winter after they released a racist job posting looking for a director to cater to the museum’s “core, white audience.” Organizing by myself and colleagues led to the president’s resignation. After my public resignation in 2020, it was vindication for me, but also a great example of when the work works. But, changing presidents doesn’t change structures. It’s a slow and hard process.
We have to be brave. People think I have a magic answer. I don’t. I was scared as s***. I just listened to what the spirit told me. I did my own thing. I stepped into my gifts, know-how, and training, and had faith.
JWB: Whose work are you excited about right now?
KM: Kelvin Burzon, whose work is so smart and beautiful!! It tackles the historical issues of European alterpieces and the erasure of, and violence against, Black and Indigenous people, people of color, as well as trans and queer people that has been perpetuated by the church across centuries. It’s just so relevant, wonderfully conceptualized, and well-crafted.
JWB: What’s next for you?
KM: I’ll be building the Curatorial Studies Program at Tufts University. It’s the next step in my quest to restructure and reorient the field towards a truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, collective model. I wasn’t sure I would work in the field again after what happened at Newfields and my own trauma around museum work, so this new chapter is such a sigh of relief. I’m excited to mentor a new generation of curators to make change.