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Northwestern University

A Shining Moment

Art historian Krista Thompson’s new book Shine wins the premiere award from the College Art Association

Krista Thompson understands that the subjects she tackles extend beyond the realms of conventional art history discourse.

But Thompson, the Weinberg College Board of Visitors Professor and a professor of art history, can neither silence her muse nor quell her curiosity, which makes her latest scholarly honor, the 2016 Charles Rufus Morey Book Award from the College Art Association (CAA) for Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, all the more rewarding.

“When you work in a small field of art history as I do, you never fully know the audience for your work or how it will be received, so earning this award was a pleasant and wonderful surprise,” says Thompson, whose research focuses on contemporary art and visual culture of the Africa diaspora.

In Shine, a seven-year project that sent Thompson across the U.S. and the Caribbean, Thompson explores photographic and videographic practices among African diasporic communities and details the hunger many have for the camera’s light. Examples include the “video light” phenomenon, in which people compete to be in the center of the photograph at late-night public events, and the controversial practice of skin bleaching, wherein people rub chemicals into their skin to become more legible in the camera’s light.

“I was particularly interested in how these forms of popular culture inform notions of value, social prestige and contemporary art,” Thompson says.

While the aesthetic value of these artistic practices is frequently dismissed, Thompson contends otherwise.

“I wanted to take seriously some of these popular culture forms and the artists coming out of these communities and document this energy and beauty,” says Thompson, a Weinberg faculty member since 2005.

One scholar called Thompson’s Shine “an imaginative, creative and groundbreaking work,” while another hailed it as a “fresh, sophisticated and greatly needed” project “that successfully bridges the aesthetics of hip hop with recent works of art.”

And clearly the CAA agreed, paying Shine its highest annual honor for a distinguished English-language book in the history of art.

“I understand academia doesn’t always reward things out of the mainstream, but I’m proud to bring this art to light and it’s an honor to have something I’m so passionate about be recognized,” Thompson says.

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