Imagine Otherwise: Sarah Stefana Smith on a Poetics and Politics of Bafflement

Imagine Otherwise: Sarah Stefana Smith on a Poetics and Politics of Bafflement

September 26, 2019

This week’s Imagine Otherwise episode features me interviewing artist and scholar Sarah Stefana Smith about how Sarah uses a poetics and politics of bafflement to trace how Black art takes shape across national borders, the pleasures and challenges of artistic collaborations in both the short and the long term, and why troubling easy assumptions about mending and making amends is how Sarah imagines otherwise.


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You can also read the transcript and show notes on the Ideas on Fire website, which have links to Sarah’s work and all the concepts, people, and events we discuss on the show (great for teaching!).

Sarah Stefana Smith wearing a royal blue blazer and blue glasses. Text reads: Sarah Stefana Smith on a Poetics of Bafflement. Imagine Otherwise, episode 96

Guest: Sarah Stefana Smith

Sarah Stefana Smith is a postdoctoral fellow of academic diversity at American University and will begin an assistant professorship in gender studies at Mount Holyoke College in July 2020. Her research communicates between Black feminism, queer of color critique, visuality, and aesthetics.

For many years, Sarah has cultivated a studio practice alongside her research. Her art work moves between photography, sculpture, and installation and uses barrier materials—bird and safety netting, chicken wire, and fishing line—to comment on boundaries between humans and other species, lines of demarcation around difference (race, gender, and sexuality), and how modes of difference are used to constitute and congeal belonging.

She received her PhD in social justice education from the University of Toronto and has published in The Black Scholar, Women & Performance, and Drain Journal of Art and Culture.

Sarah’s current book project, Poetics of Bafflement: Aesthetics of Frustration, examines how cultural taste and value in the era of multiculturalism shape national identities in South Africa and the United States, revealing implicit values about who matters, who produces legitimate art, and ways of doing resistance. Looking towards contemporary art by South African and African American Black women artists, the book articulates a methodology of bafflement to excavate how artists disrupt cohesive nationalist identities.

Key quote

“I want a world that is capacious enough to imagine a range of lives and experiences and that listens to those who are often framed as the margin. I think that functions on a lot of different levels. For the kind of contemporary moment we’re in, we’re in this space of inclusion and diversity, certainly on institutional levels. [I want] those projects of inclusion and diversity to actually focus on structural change rather than rhetorics of inclusion and there be investments in building relationships with people.”

– Sarah Stefana Smith on episode 96 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast

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