Racial and Ethnic Identity


From its increased significance at the height of European colonialism to the foundations of Enlightenment-era pseudoscience, the concept of race has been used to categorize humans along the lines of shared characteristics in order to understand human difference. Racism, which sociologist Howard Winant defines as “that which creates or reproduces hierarchical social structures based on essentialized racial categories,” has fueled unthinkable violations of human life. Race, ethnicity and visual culture are inextricably linked, and visual art presents a rich site for artists to actively overturn racist imagery. Artists have drawn on their own racial identities to create ennobling depictions of historically marginalized individuals, such as the detailed portraits of African American individuals and families by Charles White. In the wake of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Pop art, David Hammons and Betye Saar blended the materials and images of racist caricatures into a darkly parodic surrealism, while Jimmie Durham investigated Native American stereotypes. More recently, artists like Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, whose work engages questions of female identity in the Middle East, and British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare, who employs Dutch wax–printed African fabric to critique art’s colonial histories, have explored new forms of transnational culture.

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