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Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body was an attractive and smart show. The Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, its second venue of three, offered a stunning introduction to the galleries from its entrance balcony where Allison Saar’s 2006 Cache—a life-sized, tin-clad nude figure in a fetal position held in place by a giant ball of wire—was draped across the floor beneath Baby Back, Renée Cox’s oversized blackout C-print self-portrait as a dominatrix odalisque from 2001. The two works engaged in a shrill dialogue that teetered between tongue-in-cheek humor and slap-in-the-face confrontation. Exhibition category areas focused on Ideals of Beauty, Fertility and Sexuality, Maternity and Motherhood, and Identities and Social Roles. Though clearly articulated in the large, color tri-fold guide and elsewhere, they are in fact quite fluid, and most works would resonate within all of the above.
The exhibition employed strident visual impact to appraise “the historical roots of a charged icon in contemporary art” that is the black female body. It is astounding that after generations of exposure in the arts the female body continues to have show-stopping currency. The added provocateur of brown skin elevates that body to cultural capital. Judging from objects in the exhibition, the new millennium has already inspired an impressive outpouring of angst and anger concerning the subject. Humor is not at play here. And perhaps this is appropriate for a subject so deeply rooted in trauma. The exploitation of the black female body in all its stages and states was explored in the exhibition by such a diverse group of contemporary artists from across the world that the consistency of ideological and aesthetic expression was remarkable.
Although engaging, the dialogue between early twentieth-century ephemera and ritual African objects in one gallery juxtaposed with more recent “high” art productions installed separately did not enable a particularly informed encounter with black womanhood as a subject. The most respectful renderings of the black female body were within what is frequently deemed “traditional” African art. Scholars of African art continue to grapple with the nomenclature for the objects they study; antique, classical, and traditional among other adjectives all have their advocates and detractors. Regardless, the welcomed clarity of African reverence for the female body as the ultimate life-giving force celebrated in exquisite forms was unfortunately installed at Davis in a separate gallery where its relationship with more complicated and confrontational contemporary works became less evident. The acknowledgement of female beauty and power long recognized in African art was set up as a precursor to, and perhaps inspiration for, the Western-influenced art in the next rooms. This historical sweep effectively served as a stark recording of how issues now generations old (exploitation of black women, misrepresentation of African ways, disregard for the meaning of African sculpture, to name a few) remain relevant and resonate with contemporary artists working the African Diaspora.
Clearly, the gallery organization at Davis was not ideal for the curator’s vision, in comparison with the catalogue. Rich with new writing by respected authors, the latter opens with an extensive overview of African cultural positions on the black female body, continues with essays concerning “colonizing black women” in Western popular culture, and ends with four investigations into modern and contemporary responses to this material. Deborah Willis, Carla Williams (co-authors of The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), and Kimberly Wallace-Sanders write about African American women placing emphasis on valuable visual records that are often unavailable because they are held in personal archives. The other contributors are Ifi Amadiume, Ayo Abietou Coly, Christraud Geary, and Enid Schildkrout, all of whom are known for their analytical and historical work on colonial Africa. The “personal journeys” Barbara Thompson (curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American collections at the Hood Museum of Art) explores in her closing essay unifies the issues discussed in the catalogue by exposing “artists’ techniques and tactics in confronting and decolonizing the dichotomous relationship between European cultural imagination and stereotypes of the black female body” (279). The work in the exhibition does more than reflect the ways in which visual artists have grappled with European constructions of black stereotypes. The dichotomy that surfaces seems to be between stereotypes of womanhood in the entire African Diaspora and the impact of those stereotypes on black female truths. Carla Williams’s untitled prints from her 1990–91 series How to Read Character are one of the more explicit examples juxtaposing her own fleshy nude body against a chart identifying cuts of beef.
Navigating the galleries required not only an intellectual eye but an inquisitive ear as well. Dressed Like Queens, a confrontational 2003 video by Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hunter projected on hand-dyed fabric, while enclosed in a door-less room, washed the entire space with deep voices articulating words or emitting guttural sounds. The results were at once a timely soundtrack to certain works and an irritating intrusion when standing before other challenging objects. The attempt to obstruct this audio intrusion must have been the reason that visitors were requested to wear earphones while watching taped interviews with several of the artists in the show. The Cuban conceptual artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons—represented here by three potent, large-scale Polaroid photographs of her own body—looks into the camera during her interview and proclaims, “I trust artists.” Whether or not all artists are trustworthy, it is indisputable that the exhibition’s subject matter is vital to the oeuvre of some of the most talented contemporary workers in the visual arts. The exhibition also demonstrated that these artists construct meaning through the black female body in ways more diverse than most critics, theorists, and historians imagine.
It should come as no surprise that an exhibition focused on the female body is dominated by the nude. Black women’s breasts alone have been catalysts for myriad conflicting notions about wanton sexuality and nature’s abundance found in the cradle of humanity—Africa. A good amount of these nudes appear courtesy of the artists themselves. Take away the nude and seminude and the galleries would have been nearly empty. One exception was Our Mother’s Bosom (2007) by Senzeni Marasela. The piece uses an embroidered child’s dress and a simple woman’s frock riddled at the bodice with hundreds of straight pins to get to the crux of how references to black breasts are often efforts to subjugate and usurp women’s maternal capacities. Also left in place would have been two small figure studies by the pioneering Malian portraitist and street photographer Malick Sibidé who is quoted in a wall text at Wellesley as saying that “movement, not nudity, is crucial to understanding the poetics of African women’s bodies.” And a good amount of movement was implied. Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, and Hassan Musa each position the body in dynamic stasis. Musa takes the infamous images of Josephine Baker in a banana skirt and paints her dancing across a colonial-economic map of Africa, titling it Allegorie a la Banane (2001) to remind viewers that some ”modern” black women promoted, and therefore were complicit in, the preservation of black female stereotypes.
The exhibition’s extensive wall texts included artist comments on their work, which was partly a reflection of the show’s origins in an academic environment, where learning is tantamount to seeing. Such information augmented the visceral experience of beautiful but difficult installations like Berni Searle’s 1999 Traces from the Color Me series, which includes life-size photographic banners that capture some of the impact of Searle’s performances that involve literally sifted identity and access to power (here represented by precious spices and market scales) resulting from enduring colonial racism.
Twenty years ago, Barbara Kruger coined her now-infamous slogan, “your body is a battleground,” in a campaign to increase awareness of how women’s bodies are marketed as commodities. Visually stunning and intellectually provocative, Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body resurrects that dialogue and complicates an embattled body in which blackness is a catalyst, surface, symbol, subject, and object that, while transformative on many levels, continues to appear alarmingly vulnerable to exploitation and stereotyping.
Margaret Rose Vendryes
Professor, Department of Performing and Fine Arts, York College, City University of New York