Phenomenal Difference

BookPhenomenal Difference

Phenomenal Difference

A Philosophy of Black British Art

Value: Art: Politics, 13


July 17th, 2017



Other Formats



Phenomenal Difference grants new attention to contemporary black British art, exploring its critical and social significance through attention to embodied experience, affectivity, the senses and perception.

Featuring attention to works by the following artists:
Said Adrus, Zarina Bhimji, Sonia Boyce, Vanley Burke, Chila Burman, Mona Hatoum, Bhajan Hunjan, Permindar Kaur, Sonia Khurana, Juginder Lamba, Manjeet Lamba, Hew Locke, Yeu-Lai Mo, Henna Nadeem, Kori Newkirk, Johannes Phokela, Keith Piper, Shanti Thomas, Aubrey Williams, Mario Ybarra Jr. 

Much before scholars in the arts and humanities took their recent ‘ontological turn’ toward the new materialism, black British art had begun to expose cultural criticism’s overreliance on the concepts of textuality, representation, identity and difference. Illuminating that original field of aesthetics and creativity, this book shows how black British artworks themselves can become the basis for an engaged and widely-reaching philosophy.
Numerous extended descriptive studies of artworks spell out the affective and critical relations that pertain between individual works, their viewers and the world at hand: intimate, physically-involving and visceral relations that are brought into being through a wide range of phenomena including performance, photography, installation, photomontage and digital practice.
Whether they subsist through movement, or in time, through gesture, or illusion, black British art is always an arresting nexus of making, feeling and thought. It celebrates particular philosophical interest in:
- the use of art as a place for remembering the personal or collective past;
- the fundamental ‘equivalence’ of texture and colour, and their instances of ‘rupture’;
- figural presence, perceptual reversibility and the agency of objects;
- the grounded materialities of mediation;
- and the interconnections between art, politics and emancipation.
Drawing first hand on the founding, historical texts of early and mid-twentieth century phenomenology (Heidegger; Merleau-Ponty), and current advances in art history, curating and visual anthropology, the author transposes black British art into a freshly expanded and diversified intellectual field. What emerges is a vivid understanding of phenomenal difference: the profoundly material processes of interworking philosophical knowledge and political strategy at the site of black British art.


'A wonderfully erudite, powerfully argued, and fascinatingly researched book.'
Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier, University of Edinburgh

'Leon Wainwright applies a philosophical methodology to black British artists' work to break open the separatist straitjacket that has prevented much of this work from circulating in art canons as anything other than representations of a politics of identity. … [His] aim to proffer the perceptual dimension of black British art as part of a transformative anti-racist politics is admirable and the book is well researched and thought provoking.'
Maria Walsh, Art Monthly

'Cette publication qui est un ouvrage de référence crédible pour le public, les universitaires et les chercheurs, poursuitles recherches sur l’historiographie et les lieux visuels, ainsi que d’autres thèmes avec pour objectif premier de questionner la visibilité de l’art ; à savoir, comment créer un art qui suscite des questions pertinentes, qui devienne significatif, ce que Wainwright définit comme ‘un engagement esthétique plus approfondi’.'

'This publication is a serious work of reference for the public, academics and researchers, advancing research on historiography and visual contexts, as well as other topics, with the primary objective of exploring the visibility of art; namely, how to create an art that raises relevant questions, that becomes meaningful through what Wainwright defines as 'a deeper aesthetic commitment'.'
Suzanne Lampla, Association internationale des critiques d’art (AICA)

'Offers a thoughtful and persuasive examination of the ways in which the theoretical is necessarily underpinned and presupposed by the perceptual... [With] rich descriptions throughout the book ... Wainwright is at his best and his argument at its most convincing, as he brings his phenomenological approach to bear on works of art to unravel the complex relationships between art, artists and the viewer.'
The Burlington Magazine

Author Information

Leon Wainwright is Reader in Art History at The Open University, UK. His research has a transatlantic scope, bringing together the politics of historiography in art history with the philosophy of aesthetics, and new approaches to materiality and geographical space in the social sciences. He is the author of Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean (Manchester University Press, 2011) and has edited or co-edited four books: Triennial City: Localising Asian Art (Cornerhouse 2014), Objects and Imagination: Perspectives on Materialization and Meaning (Berghahn 2015), Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity (Manchester University Press 2017), and Sustainable Art Communities: Creativity and Policy in the Transnational Caribbean (Manchester University Press 2017). Together with Paul Wood and Charles Harrison he is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology: Art in Theory: The West in the World (Wiley). A former long-standing member of the editorial board of the journal Third Text, and founding editor of the Open Arts Journal, from 2014-2015 he occupied the inaugural position of Kindler Chair in Global Contemporary Art at Colgate University, New York, and has held visiting roles at UC Berkeley, Yale, and the University of Oxford. He is a recipient of the Philip Leverhulme Prize in the History of Art.