Black Womanhood in Art
Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center
Right: DOUBLE FUSE: Wangechi Mutu’s playful razzmatazz makes reference to the past but lives in the present.
“Black Womanhood,” the exhibit at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center, must have seemed like a sharp idea when it was being put together. It examines the ways in which “contemporary artists are challenging historic and often stereotypical images that present black women as the alluringly beautiful Other, the erotic fantasy, or the super-maternal mammy.” By now this is familiar, if still urgent, stuff; what makes this outing special is that it gathers more than 100 objects — traditional African art, Western colonial photos and postcards, and contemporary art — that connect today’s dissectors with the origins of the ugly stereotypes they’re working to take apart.
Barbara Thompson, who organized the show for Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in New Hampshire, does a good job of mapping the territory. But it’s an uneven show with a dour vision that leaves a mediciny taste in your mouth — and, I think, offers signs of a generation gap among curators.
The art of African women was traditionally pottery, beadwork, basketry, textiles, and the decoration of their own bodies (tattoos, scarification, hairstyles, body paint). But Westerners collected primarily African sculpture, masks, and costumes — which tended to be made by and for African men. The women’s portrayal of themselves was more abstracted, less obvious than their men’s literal, if stylized, depictions of women. The show presents women-made pots with bumps and patterns that make reference to women’s physiques and body scarification. The women’s pieces emerge directly from their work and their rituals — like a leather skirt beaded by an adolescent girl in her seclusion as she made the traditional passage into womanhood.
The most charged part of the show surveys early-20th-century Western photos and postcards of African women. Western attitudes are apparent in images that treated the women as curious ethnographic specimens and pin-ups — either untamed, sexually available African primitives or Oriental harem girls. Photographers tailored their shots to different audiences by photographing the same models elaborately garbed or in various states of undress. A postcard of a young topless Temne woman lounging on a rug was published around 1910 as “Timnie Girl, Sierra Leone.” When it was republished in the 1920s, the caption read, “Just you and me. Sierra Leone.” These postcards could be the foundation of an electrifying stand-alone exhibit.
Right: HOT-EN-TOT: More of the contemporary work should have Renée Cox’s crackle and swagger.
But “Black Womanhood” — primarily work by black women, with some contributions by men and whites — deflates as it moves to the art of today. Sokari Douglas Camp’s 1995 sculpture Gelede from Top to Toe is an African woman turned into an armored tank of steel and chicken wire with wooden breasts that jut out like battering rams. In Renée Cox’s giant 2001 photo self-portrait Baby Back, she imitates Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1814 painting La grande odalisque by reclining, with nothing hiding her brown skin except for red heels, on a gold chaise longue. Cox asks how race colors our notions of beauty, and she teases black-white, male-female hierarchies. Ingres’s naked white lady is an imagined harem girl holding a fan; Cox has a whip.
More of the contemporary work should have Cox’s crackle and swagger. It should sadden, celebrate, anger. You’d think Kara Walker’s bawdy, violent versions of ante-bellum paper-cut silhouettes would be just what this show needs, but the 1997 pop-up book that’s here is too tiny to convey the fierce beauty of her best work.
The then-and-now focus favors artists whose work is built on looking back — but many artists seem hemmed in by their historical references. And the theme pigeonholes art that is more expansive, like María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s 1994 self-portrait When I Am Not Here/Estoy Allá. The photo shows her naked body from her chin to her belly, everything painted with blue waves. Slung over her shoulders and hanging over her breasts are a pair of baby bottles. Milk seems to drip from the bottles and her breasts into a simple wooden boat that she cradles. A black Cuban native who lives in Brookline with her white husband and their son, Campos-Pons often makes reference to the African diaspora and traditional African art. But her explorations of motherhood, race, and much else have their own rich mysterious symbols, and they’re planted in the present by her sculptural and symbolic use of hair extensions and beads.
These are highlights among contemporary works that are mostly dull, didactic, and rote — like a 1990-’91 photo from Carla Williams’s How To Read Character series that pairs a diagram of the parts of a cow with a photo of the nude artist. It’s art focused more on being good for you than on engaging you. “Global Feminisms,” a survey of recent international feminist art that was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and appeared at the Davis last fall, was similarly full of dour art. This eat-your-broccoli didacticism seems at least a decade behind the times.
In “Black Womanhood,” that’s partly because much of the newish work is at least 10 years old. But it also seems to represent a generation gap among curators who haven’t picked up on the changes in this area of art over the past decade or so. These curators know black and feminist art of ’80s and ’90s, which often took the form of pared-down didactic critiques. What they’ve missed is emerging women artists and artists of color who while continuing to berate the straight white guys who’ve kept their people down also create exuberant visions of what the future can hold. And they’ve embraced lavish beauty — often for its own sake. Among younger black artists, this trend tends to show up as vivid psychedelic colors, glitter, and patterns and fabrics that make reference to traditional African art as well as ’60s and ’70s Afro soul. These artists remain engaged with the past, but in terms of the themes and styles of their childhoods, when the transformations of the civil-rights movement, feminism, and post-colonialism began to be felt.
The single example of all that here is Wangechi Mutu’s 2003 collage and ink drawing Double Fuse. It depicts weird futuristic glam twins with hands made of motorcycle parts and glittering skin-tight outfits with blond hair as epaulets. The patterns recall African art, but the goofy, cheeky, playful razzamatazz is more about beauty than a comment on the past.
Where are Chris Olifi, Mickalene Thomas, Lorna Williams, Laylah Ali, Saya Woolfalk, Yinka Shonibare, El Anatsui, and the Chicago artist Nick Cave? The show would benefit from flashbacks to Betye Saar’s acid 1972 assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which gave the icon a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. Or cartoonist Robert Crumb’s notorious ’60s caricature Angelfood McSpade, which was inspired by racist comics of the 1920s and ’30s.
And though it doesn’t fit the show’s then-and-now focus, I wish “Black Womanhood” had a place for pseudonymous Chicago artist Lo (see www.livingoprah.com), who is spending this year following, as closely as she can, the advice Oprah Winfrey gives on her television show and her Web site and in her magazines. If that doesn’t tell us something deep about black womanhood today, what does?
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