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Rachel Nelson

Ph.D., Curator and Program Manager, Institute of the Arts and Sciences, UCSC
The Political Economies of Contemporary Art, Art and Activism, Conflict Studies, Globalism, Art in the Global South, Feminist Studies, Critical Theory
Research Interests: 

My dissertation, At the Edge of Ruin: Seeing Art Under Perpetual Conflict, engages four different art practices that are embedded in current political conflicts and struggles over abuses of power: the seemingly endless warfare in Palestine, the worsening refugee crisis in Europe, the racial injustices of the U.S. criminal court system, and the ongoing environmental catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Focusing on artworks by Emily Jacir, Kader Attia, collaborators Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, and Sammy Baloji, the project considers what insights these art practices can give into the current global conditions of both art and of social and political unrest.

At the Edge of Ruin offers a response to the recent thematic emphasis of global art discourse. Artworks shown at recent large-scale global art exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale or dOCUMENTA, and through museum initiatives like the new global art programs at the Tate Modern and the Guggenheim, have increasingly focused on the disasters and conflicts that roil the 21st Century. Yet contemporary art scholarship has largely failed to consider how global art is being linked to conflict and crises and to grapple with the challenges and possibilities this poses for art interpretation. Instead, artworks tackling different geopolitical issues, for instance, the racialized politics of the mass incarceration of African Americans or the economic and labor issues within immigration struggles in France, are being shown alongside each other in international art venues with little attention paid to how these practices are producing and circulating knowledge about such disparate practices and crises. This project utilizes the conflicted space of global art to better understand worldwide unrest and turmoil. It develops a model of interpretation that investigates unfolding current events and the histories from which they spring through the responses being made in art practices.

Selected Publications: 
  • "Visions at the Scene of Trauma: New Orleans Prospect(s.)" Third Text. Volume 29, Numbers 1-2 March 2015, pp. 14-30. 
  • (Mis)Seeing in Contemporary Art/(Mis)Seeing as Contemporary Art." Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. Fall 2013. Issue 33.
  • Kiluanji Kia Henda: Art Beyond the Local and the Global." SAVVY: Journal of Contemporary African Art. eds. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Andrea Heister. Fall 2012.
  • "Imaginary Histories, Imaginary Progress: A Conversation with Kiluanji Kia Henda." SAVVY: Journal of Contemporary African Art. eds. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Andrea Heister. Fall 2012.
  • Book Review:Western Frontiers of African Art by Moyo Okediji. African Arts. Winter 2013. Vol 47.
Selected Presentations: 
  • "Spectors in the City: Luanda Past and Present." Arts Council of African Studies Association (ACASA), March 2014.
  • "Kiluanji Ki Henda's Photographic Practice: Exorcising History, Exposing the Present." Association for the Study of Worldwide African Diaspora, Dominican Republic, October 2013.
  • “Gallery Soso Arte Contemporânea Africana: (Re) Marketing Contemporary Art from Africa in Brazil and Africa.”ACASA, March 2011.
  • “Remapping the Narrative in Contemporary African Art.” At Critical Encounters: A Symposium in Honor of Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, Emory University, April 2011.
  • “Strategies of Engagement: Contemporary Art from Africa and the Western World” Getty Institute, Oct 2009.
  • “Considering Reviews of Contemporary African Art in the U.S. Media,” SECAC, New Orleans, LA, Sept 2008.
Teaching Interests: 
  • Contemporary Art of Africa and Its Diasporas
  • The Aesthetics of Resistance: Latin American Art 1900s thru the Present
  • Topics in Contemporary Art: U.S. and Europe in Times of Transition
  • Theories and Methods of Visual Studies


Honors and Awards: 
  • Rhonda A. Saad Prize for Best Paper in Modern and Contemporary Arab Art, 2016
  • Associate of American University Women (AAUW) Dissertation Fellowship, 2015/16
  • UC Santa Cruz, Arts Division Summer Dissertation Fellowship, 2015
  • UC Santa Cruz, Arts Dean Graduate Student Travel/Research Grant, 2011, 2012 & 2013
  • UC Santa Cruz, Graduate Student Association Travel Grant, 2011, 2012
  • UC Santa Cruz, STARS Fellowship, 2011
  • UC Santa Cruz Chancellor’s Fellowship, 2010/11
  • Phi Beta Kappa Society
Education and Training: 
Ph.D. in Visual Studies, UC Santa Cruz
B.A. in English, Stetson University, Florida