Art History Department to Add African Art Professor

Jake Frankenfield

Susan Kane — one of the Art History department’s six art historians and one of the biggest assets of Oberlin’s Art department — has announced she will retire at the end of this semester. The Art History department will use Kane’s retirement as a chance to reflect on the current structure of the department and to determine how it will be shaped in the coming years.


Former department co-chair and current Professor of Art Bonnie Cheng, the only non-Western art historian at Oberlin, went to great pains to stress that this transition has been a long time coming. According to Cheng, Kane’s retirement will mean that the department now has the funding to hire a new professor. Art History Department Chair Erik Inglis said the department looks forward to their new professor’s arrival with “good faith and … excitement.”


Oberlin’s Art History department has always had a Western bent. In 1989 the department boasted six art historians, one of which was a non-Western expert. In 1997, the department combined two of the Western-focused positions to make room for a professor of modern architecture, who focused primarily on Western architecture.

Cheng said Oberlin’s ratio of Western art historians to non Western art historians is “outmoded and doesn’t suit Oberlin at all.” “There’s no question it’s been a Western-based curriculum,” Inglis said. The department has made an active effort in years past to broaden its curriculum. “At multiple moments we’ve had visiting Islamicists, and we’ve had requests for the College to hire a new person in Islamic art history,” he said. Those requests have been unsuccessful thus far, but the department will reapply this year.

According to Inglis, the decision to add a professor of African art and the African diaspora is a relatively obvious one, given closer inspection of the department. Discussions of the evolution of the department arose during intra-department discussions, though very few concrete objectives were explored, aside from altering what material gets covered and how. “We decided to go with African art because we thought that was where the greatest room for growth, both in the material we covered and in the way we covered materials.” Inglis said. “We thought that the arts of Africa offered the greatest promise and greatest unmet demand on campus, and the collection of art in the museum is pretty good and can expand.” Additionally, African art and diaspora studies offer substantial opportunities for ties to and collaborations with other departments at Oberlin, such as the Africana Studies department.

The department hopes the new hire will fundamentally shift the department’s focus, but it is unclear what the evolution will look like. “Obviously African Art and African diaspora is a huge field, covering 3,000 years of art from all over the world. … It’s hard to know how things will change until we’re sitting next to the colleague,” said Inglis.

Nevertheless, the decision is an important development for art history at Oberlin. It could significantly improve the department for the next 20 to 25 years. The department is not taking its decision lightly, either. “Art history in particular can feel removed from the real world,” said Inglis. “But in many ways, it is one of the most useful and pertinent disciplines in academia. In questions of cultural exchange and contact and communication and power — which are vital political and social questions — art history has a huge amount to say.” He added: “In a time when many people almost fear that our discourse is dominated by images, when people fear [we lack] a verbal discourse [that] investigates things deeply, art history is the discipline you need to explore.”