Disturbing Views: Visual Culture and Nationalism in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Brenda Schmahmann's picture
Call for Papers
November 25, 2019
South Africa
Subject Fields: 
Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Contemporary History, Cultural History / Studies, Nationalism History / Studies


Disturbing Views:

Visual Culture and Nationalism in the 20th and 21st Centuries


23-25 April 2020


This is a call for papers for a conference that will take place at the offices of the NRF Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture at the University of Johannesburg. It will commence in the early evening of Thursday 23 April and will conclude by lunchtime on Saturday 25 April 2020.




In the conclusion of his book Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995, p. 177), Michael Billig writes: ‘If the future remains uncertain we know the past history of nationalism. And that should be sufficient to encourage a habit of watchful suspicion’.


This warning has perhaps never been more relevant than in the second decade of the new millennium, which has been characterised by a marked turn towards right-wing populism and nationalism. In the USA, Europe and various countries across the globe, recent years have seen resurgent nationalisms declaring themselves in exclusionary ethnic, cultural or religious terms. These should sound a worrying tocsin: when liberal democracy fails to find a sufficiently broad base and democratic governance is seen to fail, authoritarianism – and the attendant erosion of civil rights and liberties of those who do not fit a narrow definition of national ‘belonging’ – is never far behind.


For academics working on art and visual culture, critical questions arise about how the visual domain has been implicated in, or responded to, instances in which nationalist groups have sought or assumed power and influence. Working in light of a perspective that understanding the relation of visual culture to instances of nationalism can enable new and enhanced perspectives about not only the past but also the present, the conference explores two broad questions:

  • How has art and visual culture been deployed to foster the interests of those who, in seeking to elicit support and power for only their own (perceived) nation or group, develop rhetoric and ideas underpinned by prejudice against groups conceptualized as outsiders? In asking this question, the intention of the conference is to explore how such nationalist approaches may have shaped the form and content of exhibitions, public sculptures, commemorative monuments, photographic projects, cartoons, illustrations or any other examples of visual culture in the 20th or 21st centuries. And in instances when manifestations of nationalism are from the past (and particularly when they assume the form of commemorative monuments), the conference invites consideration about how they are managed or negotiated in the present.
  • Alternatively, how has the visual domain served as a space for the critique and activist refusal of right-wing and exclusionary nationalist interests and discourse? Such initiatives might involve critique of current manifestations of nationalism or they may involve retrospective engagements with nationalist agendas from the past. They may manifest this critique through individual artmaking initiatives, the curating of exhibitions, art and activism in the public domain or any other such activities involving visual culture.

Timed to coincide with the launch of Troubling Images: Visual Culture and the Politics of Afrikaner Nationalism (Wits University Press), a book of essays edited by Federico Freschi, Brenda Schmahmann and Lize van Robbroeck, this conference, like the new volume, is intended to raise debates that are especially important – and urgent – in a current context.




A prospective presenter is invited to offer a 30-minute paper focusing on an example of the ways in which visual culture has been embroiled in, or responded critically to, a manifestation of nationalism. Papers may focus on any geography and period in the 20th or 21st centuries. The term “visual culture” should be interpreted in a wide sense: focus may be on examples traditionally categorised as fine art (such as paintings, sculpture), popular media (such as magazine illustrations, cartoons or posters), monuments and architecture as well as transitory visual forms such as exhibitions, installations and art performances. Participation is invited from all scholars interested in visual culture – art, architectural or design historians as well as those working in history, media studies, political studies, cultural theory or other areas of the humanities. Papers must be of new and previously unpublished research, and in English.


Please submit your proposal with “Disturbing Views” in the subject line, and send it to the convenor, Brenda Schmahmann (brendas@uj.ac.za), and copied to the administrator at the offices of the Research Chair of South African Art and Visual Culture, Neelofir Nagdee (nnagdee@uj.ac.za), by 25 November 2019. Please submit a single WORD document with the following information:

  1. a title for your paper
  2. an abstract between 350 and 500 words in length for a 30-minute paper
  3. a short biography, including your current institutional affiliation (about 200 words)
  4. your contact details, i.e. e-mail address, postal address, telephone number/s


Applicants will be notified of decisions by no later than 15 December 2019.




Although presenters will need to arrange and pay for their own travel costs to Johannesburg, they will not be charged a conference fee and the host will provide accommodation and meals for the duration of the conference. Please note, however, that if a paper is co-authored, this support can be given to only one presenter.





Contact Info: 

Professor Brenda Schmahmann

South African Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture

Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture

University of Johannesburg

Physical Address: 33 Twickenham Ave, Auckland Park, Johannesburg.

Postal Address: P.O. Box 524, Auckland Park, 2006.

Tel: 27 11 559 7220/1  

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