Performing Black Womanhood


Adjoa Osei is a PhD Researcher of Brazilian Studies at the University of Liverpool, funded by the AHRC and the Duncan Norman Scholarship.  She was a fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, resident from October 2018 until April 2019.  She completed an MPhil in Portuguese Studies at the University of Oxford, funded by the Ertegun Scholarship in the Humanities, achieving a Distinction. Prior to this, she completed a BA in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at King’s College London, University of London achieving a First-Class Honours.  

The twentieth century was an exciting moment of avant-garde artistic and intellectual innovation.  While the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Mario de Andrade, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were thinking about new ways of representing sound, artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Emiliano de Cavalcanti were thinking about new ways of representing the figure.  Within this moment of…

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SAVE THE DATE: Upcoming Talk in DC on 03/02

I’m gearing up for my “Afrochic” talk at CAA this Friday (!) but soon after that I will be heading to my natal city of DC to give another talk about some relatively new research of mine at the Library of Congress. Chocolate City Peeps come check it out!

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Adjoa Osei – PhD Researcher, University of Liverpool
Lá vem a baiana

The Portuguese term baiana translates as ‘woman from the state of Bahia’, and refers to Afro-descendent women street vendors in Salvador de Bahia. Beginning in the 1920s, the black or mulata body in motion, as represented by the baiana, was officially elevated as a symbol of the modern, mestiça Brazilian corporality. This presentation explores the shifts in representations of the baiana archetype to an emblem of Brazilian national identity. I track the baiana across geographic spaces, performed on stage by various black women performers including Brazilian soprano Elsie Houston, Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham.

Adjoa Osei is a Kluge Center fellow at the Library of Congress, resident from October 2018 until April 2019. She is a PhD Researcher of Brazilian Studies at the University of Liverpool, funded by the AHRC and the Duncan Norman Scholarship. She completed an MPhil in Portuguese Studies at the University of Oxford, funded by the Ertegun Scholarship in the Humanities, achieving a Distinction. Prior to this, she completed a BA in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at King’s College London, University of London achieving a First-Class Honours. She co-organises the Image, Sound and Performance Research Group at the University of Liverpool.

Dr. Camara Dia Holloway, Independent Scholar
Dark Beauty, Bright Ambition: Navigating Black Stardom in Jazz Age NY/LON

This presentation is an exploration of the lives and careers of black women performers for whom London was the key point of anchor, besides Harlem, as they pursued their professional goals during the interwar period. With a thriving bohemian scene and ever-growing audience clamoring for jazz, the British entertainment industry provided plentiful opportunities for black performers. Florence Mills, Elisabeth Welch, Nina Mae McKinney and Edna Thomas will be amongst those discussed. Less studied than the New York-Paris axis, the NY/LON networks offer rich insights for those interested in this important moment in modernist and black cultural histories.

Dr. Camara Dia Holloway is an independent scholar whose research is focused on issues of race and representation between the Two World Wars. Her talk is drawn from ongoing research examining the interwar connections between Harlem and London entitled “Harlem on Thames.” Dr. Holloway earned her PhD from the Department of History of Art at Yale University. She is the founding co-director of the Association for Critical Race Art History (ACRAH).

Sala Elise Patterson, Independent Scholar
Finding Ady: Recovering the Story of a Black Surrealist Muse

Adrienne ‘Ady’ Fidelin (1915-2004) was a Guadeloupean dancer and model who became muse to a core group of avant-garde artists in Paris, and the first Black model to appear in a major American fashion magazine. Fidelin is captured in hundreds of works by the celebrated American artist Man Ray, produced between 1936 and 1940 when the two were lovers. She was also the subject of work by Pablo Picasso, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, yet there have been only scant and often erroneous references to her in literature on the period. This talk chronicles the decade-long, transatlantic effort to discover who Fidelin was, and what happened to her before and after those few, well-documented years with Man Ray. It asks why Fidelin “disappeared” in the first place, and how the tendency to marginalize black women’s stories played a part.

Sala Elise Patterson is a writer and researcher of overlooked stories of the African Diaspora. A former magazine editor, she has written for The Atlantic’s CityLab, New Internationalist, Ford Foundation Report, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, where she brought Adrienne Fidelin’s story to the American mainstream in 2007 with the article, “Yo, Adrienne.” Patterson co-authored the bibliographic entry on Fidelin in the Oxford Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biographies, and an essay on her in the forthcoming Musée D’Orsay exhibition catalogue for The Black Model: From Géricault to Matisse. She holds a BA from Columbia University in African-American Literature and an MSc in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

TEASER: CAA2019 Afrochic presentation

Happy New Year!

If you are planning on attending CAA2019, I will be presenting the paper, “Afrochic: Race and the Emergence of American Fashion,” on the following panel:

Race in the History of Design: Objects, Identity, Methodologies | Design Studies Forum (formerly Design Forum: History, Criticism and Theory) | New York Hilton Midtown – 2nd Floor – Regent | February 15, 2019 | 6:00 – 7:30 pm

Since I had to leave some material on the cutting room floor, I thought I would share it here. My talk will be focused on the 1923 Primitive Negro Art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art but during the course of my research I came across this earlier example of African cultural appropriation related to the following garment purchased by the American Museum of Natural History in 1917:



The garment is identified as a “Hausa man’s robe” from Nigeria. It was one of many “documents” from around the world that fashion designers were encouraged to draw inspiration from when formulating modern American designs.

It was placed in the center of the one of the displays at the Exhibition of Industrial Arts held at AMNH in 1919. This exhibition was a showcase for how a unique American design aesthetic could be generated by gleaning from the global array of history and culture contained in museums.


In the detail above you can see the garment as well as the textile that it inspired directly below it.

Another textile designer came up with a more abstracted all-over pattern for a cretonne fabric based on the garment in 1918.


The fashion designer Jessie Franklin Turner decided to reinterpret the garment as a caftan-style negligee in 1918. It was made of wisteria velvet with wool embroidery in coordinating colors.


I have also found this 1920s scarf in the Brooklyn Museum of Art Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that bears a pattern reminiscent of the garment’s embroidery.


For some reason, a number of designers found this one particular garment of African origin especially fascinating and it sparked their creativity as they mined the globe in an effort to develop a new American design language.

This garment was so noteworthy that more than two decades later, Jessie Franklin Turner based another dress upon it for a 1940 exhibition for the Museum of Costume Art (precursor to the MET’s Costume Institute) that once again intended to highlight how global cultures could inspire American design.


If this tangent whets your curiosity come see my talk on February 15th! The whole panel promises to be really interesting. Hope to see you there!



Teaser: Afrochic

I haven’t posted in a while and recently when I have shown my face I invariably get asked what I have been up to so here is a little a taste of the research that I will be presenting at a CAA2019 talk titled, “Afrochic: Race and the Emergence of American Fashion.”


Above are some of the reading materials that I have been delving into and here is the abstract for my talk:

This paper considers the role of race in the formation of modern fashion design. Early in twentieth century, Women’s Wear editor, M. D. C. Crawford, and the Brooklyn Museum’s Curator of Ethnology, Stewart Culin, forged a productive alliance between the museum and fashion worlds to foster the development of American design. Simultaneously, colonial enterprises delivered increased information about Africa to Western audiences and its raw materials to the marketplace. As the fashion industry sought to contribute to the national effort to modernize lifestyle and taste, it capitalized on the precedent of the primitivist vogue that had sparked a fundamental reinvention of art and culture amongst the avant-garde. When Culin organized the exhibition Primitive Negro Art, Chiefly from the Belgian Congo in 1923, it showcased not just the aesthetic merits of African expressive culture but its suitability as inspiration for modern fashion. The garment prototypes designed to accompany the show and the promotional rhetoric orchestrated by Crawford reveal that in addition to the appropriation of African design principles and styles, entrenched cultural myths about Africa and racial beliefs profoundly affected emergent fashion trends. Through the lens of fashion, where many would least expect it, this paper demonstrates that race played a significant role in the nation’s modernization at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reinventing American identity, aesthetics and mode of dress didn’t entail abandoning the nation’s traditional recourse to race. Arguably the triumph of the American Century hinged upon an Africanist presence lending its currency to the culture industry. 

I will leave you with a sample image that will feature in the presentation demonstrating how Kuba textiles were looked to for inspiration for modern American fashion.

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For more Afrochic news, you can visit my new page. Hope to see you at CAA!



Coming this fall: “Say It with Pictures”


Organizers Amy Mooney and Deborah Willis have kindly invited me to participate in this project on black photographers in Chicago in the early 20th century.

Check it out on social media @sayitwithpics and @sayitwithpicsthenandnow and see more at

Harlem on my mind (forthcoming essay on Dawoud Bey’s photos of Harlem)

“Harlem: Found Ways” is a new exhibition opening today at The Cooper Gallery at Harvard University that “presents artistic visions and engagements specific to Harlem, New York City, in the last decades.” Check it out if you are in Cambridge this summer!

And, look for an essay by yours truly in the exhibition catalogue reflecting on Dawoud Bey’s two important photographic series Harlem, U.S.A. and Harlem Redux, selections of which are featured in the show. These preview photos are courtesy of Dawoud.

I love archives: The amazing Katherine Dunham

Eighty years ago this month, an anthropologist named Katherine Dunham made her New York City dance debut at the 92nd Street Y. The 28 year old Chicago native choreographed and performed with her own company of dancers as part of “A Negro Dance Evening” organized by fellow dancers Edna Guy and Allison Burroughs. Born in […]

via Katherine Dunham in New York City — MCNY Blog: New York Stories

The hard copy of my essay arrived!


The illustrations for my Brooklyn Rail essay, “The African Roots of Modern Fashion,” garnered me a beautiful two-page spread. Go Afrochic!

New essay published on Afrochic

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My piece, “The African Roots of Modern Fashion,” is a part of the lastest Brooklyn Rail Critics Page on art and fashion edited by Alexandra Schwartz. It provides some insight into my current research. Pleased to be in the company of Valerie Steele, Juliet Bellow, Rhonda Garelick, and Saya Woolfalk!

I offer up another Afrochic tidbit in celebration: Carl Van Vechten’s 1934 portrait of socialite Emilie Grigsby. The leopard couture gown she is wearing is now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum:



On being black and visiting museums

by Jendella Benson Deciding that it is never too early to take the task of cultural reproduction seriously (see David Osa Amadasun’s article, “‘Black people don’t go to galleries’ – The reproduction of taste and cultural values”), I took my fourteen month old son to the National Portrait Gallery one brisk November afternoon. The exhibition […]

via The unbearable whiteness of history — Media Diversified

This post on Media Diversified echoes some recent discussion about the enduring perception that museums are not meant for people of color, who have been historically unwelcome and underrepresented in their collections.

I remember my experience attending museums as black child growing up in post-de-Segregation era Washington, DC differently. Maybe it was a Chocolate City thang, maybe it was that both my parents had advanced degrees, maybe it was that museums were being pressured to abandon exclusionary practices both official and de facto that a decade earlier would have certainly made the climate different, but as a frequent museum-goer I felt that those spaces belonged to me. Moreover, I felt just at home at the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery as I did at the National Museum of African Art (in its previous incarnation at the Frederick Douglass House before its move to the Mall).

Fortunately, I only learned later that most people like me perceived museums as antithetical to them and it is a shame that this belief persists. Was my sense of entitlement to the works of art that I saw regardless of whether they were by El Greco, an Aztec, a French Impressionist, an African, or by Bearden, due to whatever unique thing that prompted me to become an art historian or was it because an open door policy works?

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