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Aesthetics of Translation

Despite our habit of going for the most direct definition of words, concepts, and phrases, we are at a moment that is constantly demanding us to think harder. The first available understandings and context are often too shallow, while our own personal understanding and contexts are too intimate, and occasionally unavailable. Somewhere in between the definition as defined by the dictionary and definition as defined by our experiences, meanings find a haven. Yet even beyond the verbal translation, we are often approached by a visual one. An aesthetic one, for the sake of jargon. As we wake up and begin to try and decipher the imagery of our dreams with a volume by Freud or a dream interpretation from a great aunt or uncle albeit charged with superstition. As we gaze at our plates of food. Marvel at the work of Walker Evans. Stare with intent or even passively at the morose functionality of the cinder block . Scroll through Instagram. Wonder why people who aren’t like us dress like that. Watch someone throw dat ass in a circle. The aesthetics of translation go beyond those signs and objects that tell us exactly what something is, beyond what we think we know, and beyond what we can read and research. The aesthetics of translation go beyond academia, despite use of our very fancy, very pristine term ‘aesthetics’. The aesthetics of translation go beyond beauty as a rarity, and in turn beyond rarity as commodity, as they slowly seep into greater appreciations and understandings of things words simply could never express.

I struggle with the aesthetics of translation constantly working from the place of a “young, Black, curator”… in the space of an old, White, connoisseur. What is appropriate and what is inappropriate? What images make people think concernedly about Black visual culture, as opposed to making them gawk? What on Earth are the creators of Blackish doing? There are always way more questions than answers.

Okwui Enwezor has dubbed this moment in art and theory as post-westernism, meanwhile in this very same moment Raven-Symoné is #NewBlack. I argue that Contemporary and Black are synonyms. Contemporary as the new urban.


The first step in understanding the aesthetics of translation is debunking the boring philosophical definition that restricts it to solely being about beauty. Aesthetics are our day to day, and even if we do not recognize a pair of shoes, a light fixture, or a $1 painting from Family Dollar as such, it once was-whether it be deemed by our own values or someone else’s. Perhaps the biggest reason that the aesthetics of Black visual culture are often overlooked by the mass is that many of our conventions are looked at as day to day by both insiders and outsiders.

Kenya Evans -" In the Meantime" Photo Credit - Chanelle Nicole Frazier

Kenya Evans -” In the Meantime” Photo Credit – Chanelle Nicole Frazier

This realization dawned on me recently while observing works created by visual artist Kenya Evan. Particularly in his work In the Meantime (2015), which initially strikes the viewer as a shelf, but in reality is charged with and expresses a tradition of craftsmanship that is often taken for granted, or as another part of the day to day. In the Meantime, as an aesthetic gesture that is both practical and referent to a carpentry of the past, forces the viewer to reconcile with the shelf in a way that is similar to early responses in regards to the aesthetic value of African art (primitives creating for functionality over beauty), which is inherently problematic. To even consider it as simple or praise it for the use of clean lines has detrimental effects that sweep away deeper experiences that make it an amazing piece of art. On the flipside, when it come to the people and In the Meantime as a fixture of the day to day, appreciation and purpose for the work are prescribed in a number of different ways. In the Meantime is a great example of the attachment that a handcrafted item by someone in your family that retains value solely because it was touched, nurtured, and/or produced by someone with a greater value to you than the item or object itself. Again, we are looking at an available definition for a shelf, and comparing it to a more personal one. The translation lies in between knowing that it is indeed a shelf but also realizing it is an homage. An item that holds but also one that uses a design aesthetic that is much older than Ikea or Modernism.

Black interior [design] is not the only place I often see our aesthetic contributions and moments lost in translation, but I believe it is the one I see it happen in most often. Take a moment to think about the Black contemporary form of altars in the home, also known as the bedroom mirror; surrounded and sometimes completely covered in pictures of loved ones, both past and present. Take another moment to think about who is credited for the front porch, an amenity most of us hate living without. Black interior design is a key introduction to visual art as a culture in the home. A lot of our taste, interest, and abilities to acclimate come from our home experiences and usually have some influence once we move past this home and into adulthood.

            If the first step in understanding is debunking that aesthetics relates purely to beauty as a philosophical moment (which is a sweeping assumption, and total bullshit), then the second is understanding that despite, Black Twitter, World Star Hip Hop, etc. there are still idiosyncrasies rooted in various Black experiences that those beyond that simply cannot understand, no matter how much reading and research is done. As a young, Black, woman this becomes especially important as I find the world telling me they “can only imagine what it’s like”, or even “I understand you completely”. I often have trouble understanding why people insist on understanding and knowing every single thing.

A big struggle for Black curators to this day still seems to be the deeply felt commitment to academizing all aspects of Blackness for the sake of legitimizing our actions and practices through a socio-historical lens for the viewer. This brings me to point three, which is that as reference points made in visual culture are only intended to cue the response of those it was created for, why is it the task of the Black curator to create exhibition for those who know the visual culture and in turn create a translation for those that do not know and have not had the experience that would result in one being able to translate it? We insist on creating access for all, when the same gesture is rarely extended to us.

This becomes problematic when there are works that just cannot be recontextualized, or if already recontextualized too heavily–leave the viewer either confused or completely certain that they understand all there is to know about that specific aspect of Black culture and visual culture. Black Masculinity and Black Female Sexuality being the two topics subject to constant recontextualization and that quest to ‘understand’ what it is about.

The aesthetics of translation in the context of the Black curator as well as the people and the viewer, is a much longer discussion to be had than this. This is more than anything the setup or even the proposal of an open discussion about the aesthetics of translation before art, as an institution, is allowed to forge forward and understand more than is necessary.

There is some solace in not understanding, a valid experience that is often overlooked.

Chanelle Nicole Frazier often finds herself playing the role of a curator, a platform that allows her to question all things shady as validated through an academic guise. With special interest in art history as a terminal, static, and even comical subject, her works and interest often deal with art history as it is related to Black life, museum studies, appropriation, etc. Frazier is currently based in the Gold Coast (Ghana), was raised in the Third Coast (Htx), but born on the West Coast (CA).  Frazier often tweets and can be reached at






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