History of Art


Dr Gabriella Nugent, who completed her PhD in 2020, awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

26 August 2021

Congratulations to UCL History of Art Alumna Gabriella Nugent, who has recently been awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of East Anglia for her project "Making and Unmaking: Contemporary African Artists and the Medium of Sculpture".

Gabriella Nugent

Hi Gabriella, thanks so much for talking to us! You completed your PhD with us in 2020 and your book coming out in November is based on your dissertation – what can readers expect from this?

My book, Colonial Legacies: Contemporary Lens-Based Art and the Democratic Republic of Congo, examines a generation of contemporary artists born or based in the Congo whose lens-based art attends to the afterlives and mutations of Belgian colonialism in postcolonial Congo. Focusing on three artists and one artist collective, I analyse artworks produced by Sammy Baloji, Michèle Magema, Georges Senga and Kongo Astronauts, each of whom offers a different perspective onto this history gleaned from their own experiences. 

The careers of the artists discussed in my book, and the artworks that they produced, coincided with a critical awareness of the colonial era that surfaced in Belgium at the end of the 1990s and grew in visibility over the course of the 2000s and 2010s. These years were significant for the predominant role played by the visual arts in addressing the country’s colonial past, especially by artists of Congolese origin. The globalisation of the art world and the explosion of biennial culture in the 1990s led to the emergence of a younger generation of artists who offered a more critical engagement with Belgian colonialism, specifically in terms of the alternative perspectives gained from experiencing its aftermath.

In my analysis, I am attentive to the work that artworks do. I offer an incredibly close reading of the selected works. I situate them in the contexts out of which they emerge, while simultaneously attending to their material density, intricate detail and profound emotional economy, which I set in dialogue, and often in conflict, with historiography and theory.

In their photography and video art, I argue that the selected artists rework existent images and redress archival absences, making visible people and events occluded from dominant narratives. Their artworks are shown to offer a re-reading of the colonial and immediate post-independence past, blurring the lines of historical and speculative knowledge, documentary and fiction. I demonstrate how their practices create a new type of visual record for the future, one that attests to the ramifications of colonialism across time.

Congratulations on being awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship for your project "Making and Unmaking: Contemporary African Artists and the Medium of Sculpture"! Can you tell us more about this project? Did it emerge from your PhD?

Thank you! My Leverhulme project starts by asking to what extent current approaches to decolonisation, i.e. museums, galleries and universities foregrounding artists from Africa, reinscribe an established sense of difference. Ideas of cultural difference were intrinsic to the emergence of the category of ‘contemporary African art’ in the 1990s, a decade that witnessed the globalisation of the art world and its expansion to geographies once considered peripheral to a Eurocentric matrix. The popularity of contemporary artists from Africa at this time was often predicated on the ways that a certain ‘Africanness’ could be read into their artwork: a subtext of exotic otherness.

My project brings together for the first time a generation of contemporary African artists working in sculpture and sculptural installation, such as Ibrahim Mahama, Nicholas Hlobo and Nandipha Mntambo, who started to exhibit internationally in the wake of this decade. I seek to examine the ways in which they respond to, but simultaneously critique, demands for “Africanness” in their work. Sculpture offers something unique in this regard: an intensity of making that revolves around craft and touch, the physical nature of materials and hand-worked methods that imply tradition and skill. The significance of sculpture thus lies in its capacity to act as a vehicle for past and present material traditions. From cowhide, textiles and jute sacks to stitching and weaving, I argue that the selected artists use sculpture as a tool to re-stage their cultural heritage. I claim that their work offers an alternative model through which to envision African pasts, global presents and decolonised futures. 

Based on research conducted in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and the United States, my project will make a unique contribution to contemporary debates on the relationship between art and heritage and the aesthetic conditions generated by globalisation. I will examine the ways in which the selected artists are presented by scholars, critics and curators, and on the global art market, and if these actors reify ‘Africanness’ in the sculptures at odds with the artists’ conceptions. My analysis has wider implications for the categories of art history and the frame of continents through which the discipline is often taught.