“There’s a Woman of All Colors: Black Women in Art” has been on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art since mid-September and runs through January 30. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth it, both for the way it fills one of the most gaping holes in art history – which, as we know, was dominated by white male artists – but also for the many ways it illustrates black female artists pushing powerfully against their glaring omission.
Fortunately, the canon of white male art has been disintegrating for decades. One of the things this show makes clear, however, is how long various stereotypes of black women – the tragic mulatto, Jezebel, Mammy – have permeated their portrayal in American art, and just how long they continue to be. be deeply engraved in our consciousness.
There is no doubt that questioning accepted opinions is a major function of artistic scholarship, which is why it is important to always confront art with an open mind. This show asks us to think through many questions regarding assumptions about black women, so be prepared for some uncomfortable moments.
Examining my own reactions to some of the wall texts presented by the curator of the exhibition, Elizabeth S. Humphrey (Bowdoin class of 2014, and curatorial assistant and responsible for student programs at the museum), I discovered how these stereotypes influenced my own vision. I was grateful for the opportunity to dissect this dilemma in my own soul. I also found that there were times when I felt Humphrey’s thesis could go too far.
The exhibition is organized more or less chronologically, starting with “Dinah, Portrait of a Negress” by Eastman Johnson from 1867. For me, the painting emanates a heavy dignity, while conveying the feeling of this devalued and subjugated dignity. I see resilience, but at the same time I realize that the circumstances that brought about this resilience were so horribly inhuman that you can feel the natural emergence of this woman’s survival imperative.
This is my vision for the 21st century. However, although Johnson is known to have painted “likeable” portraits of enslaved people, the text on the wall reminds us that “Dinah” and “Negress” were both stereotypical terms that embodied the “other” status of slave souls in the popular imagination. I realized Johnson was having it both ways – both recognizing the dignity of his subject while excluding him with no idea of his world. This is what we would call white privilege today.
I also found Deschamps de la Talaire’s “Portrait of a Biracial Woman” from 1760 quite beautiful at first. Then I learned from the text on the wall that it was a fancy portrait, a genre common at the time based on fictional subjects of the artist’s own imagination. From this perspective, the clear sensuality of the woman – swollen breasts, idealized features – acquires a certain goosebumps that resemble fetishist soft porn, despite its rather chaste 18th century context.
Work like this shows how these archaic stereotypes continue to operate subliminally in our consciousness (or unconsciousness), and how they contribute to a certain psychological denial of the realities that our 21st century view fails, mostly out of ignorance, to take. into account. Account.
Further in this gallery are various black female nudes shot in the 1940s and 1950s by William Witt. The text on the wall here says: “Their unregistered names and invisible faces are a form of erasure, leaving only their black bodies in plain view. Drawing inspiration from Western artistic traditions of depicting the female nude, Witt’s photographs overlap with a legacy of slavery, ethnographic exposure and the conquest of black bodies. Her photographs raise questions about the connotations of the black female body: hypersexual, non-female, obscene and grotesque.
Parts of this statement seem compelling. “Sleeping Nude,” for example, depicts a woman with her back turned towards us to face a radiator flanked by two windows. Compositionally, the radiator rises exactly at a point coinciding with the female genital area. It’s hard to believe that this phallic allusion is innocent rather than obscene, especially for a photographer for whom composition was a primary concern.
Yet one of Witt’s hallmarks was the anonymity of his subjects. He always played the underdog, watching scenes that seemed private to him from afar, through a window, from behind. He also didn’t reserve faceless depictions of female nudes for black women, as evidenced by his 1966 photo (obviously not on this show) of a white woman with a blond bob looking out a door window, back to the photographer. Erasure? May be. But wouldn’t this also be the artist’s feeling of his own alienation from the world? An observer rather than a participant in life?
I didn’t feel anything “hypersexual, anti-feminine, obscene, and grotesque” about “Black Nude Hands on Chest”. The subject looks us straight in the eye, unashamed and, in my opinion, incredibly in control. There is for me no quantitative difference in its expression and that of the model in the powerful and resplendent “Tell Me What You’re Thinking” (2016) by Mickalene Thomas. The title in this case is almost a challenge, as if to ask, “Do you have a problem with this?” “
Thomas, of course, turns the tropes of classical art upside down (read: white) by posing his model as an odalisque – a slave or a concubine – in the manner of Manet, Titian and others, and then layering the backdrop with a riot of patterned fabrics that shakes our memories of the tastefully sober environments in which these male painters have placed their subjects.
This type of politically charged representation is found throughout the exhibition, mainly in the modern works of black artists. “American Icons: Untitled (Salt and Pepper Shakers)” by photographer Carrie Mae Weems, shows Mammy and Sambo shakers on a kitchen counter, illustrating how the prevalence of black stereotypes has infiltrated the most everyday objects in our homes – and , therefore, our consciousness.
Kara Walker’s provocative track “African / American” certainly confronts the viewer with racist ideas about uncontrollable black female sexuality (the last two sentences of Witt’s mural text would have been perfect here). The protest photographs of Danny Lyon and Accra Shepp are more documentary.
Lyon footage records the imprisonment, in appalling conditions, of 32 black teenage girls in Georgia, and Fannie Lou Hamer protesting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Shepp’s are portraits of women at an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Whitfield Lovell’s pencil drawing on paper, “Kin XLVI,” associates the profile of a black woman with an object used for target practice . It’s not really subtle, but it prompts us, as the text on the wall says, to “consider the history of violence against the black body and the issues of domestic violence against women.”
It’s heartening to see modern expressions of black women’s power in works like Thomas’. This meaning permeates the print by Elizabeth Catlett (which gives the show its name). It’s also in Barbara Dewayne Chase-Riboud “Zanzibar # 3”, which deals with the legacy of the slave trade while also acknowledging the royal origins of black women with a beautifully designed headdress. And Barkley L. Hendricks’ “Sister Lucas” is a shamelessly proud portrayal of black femininity.
There are also artists like Alma Thomas, Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Julie Mehretu who eschewed explicitly “black” themes for more personally expressive styles in which they gained some freedom from the politics of identity. .
But it is the sheer variety of genres, media and themes presented in this exhibition that underlies a larger, depressing reality that is the source of all kinds of widespread marginalization. All of these women – whether subject or author of a work – were and are unique beings whose individual worth and contribution have been overlooked. And the subconscious effects of this unworthiness still influence the way many of us view and interpret art today.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]