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Perspective

An exhibition suggests questions on how images of black womanhood

February 15, 2009|Erin Aubry Kaplan

SAN DIEGO — When is a black woman simply a black woman?

It's a question that feels so reflexive with an answer so self-evident, it shouldn't be a question at all. Black women are who they are, nothing more or less. They are the sum of their qualities, which often include being plain-spoken, no-nonsense, emotionally transparent and as enduring as necessary. They also tend to be physically audacious, comfortable in their own skin and, even in the most oppressive circumstances, in control. Think Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, Harriet Tubman, Beyonce, Michelle Obama.

Question closed, right? Or are you suddenly not sure how much of the above description of black women is truth, stereotype, dehumanization, romanticism or something between all of that? If you answered B, good. Uncertainty about the meaning and origins of black female identity is exactly what the new exhibition "Black Womanhood: Images, Icons and Ideologies of the African Body" is looking to stir up, not just among whites but among viewers of all colors.

Because the truth is, at various times and for various reasons, most of us are guilty of seeing black women as icons first and individuals second. Often we don't get to the individuals at all because the visual is so powerful and orienting -- or, in this case, disorienting.

"People like to say we've gotten beyond these issues of image and race, but we haven't," remarks Barbara Thompson, formerly a curator at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, where the show originated, and now at Stanford University. "They're still very salient in our everyday lives. Our culture has learned to hide it. Look at the discussion around Michelle Obama during the presidential campaign and how black she was or wasn't. It's amazing."

The multimedia exhibition by mostly black female artists from the U.S., Africa, Europe and the Caribbean is at the San Diego Museum of Art through April 26.

This is not a show meant primarily to ennoble black women and counter all the clearly demeaning images that we recognize: the uncouth African, the uncomplaining Southern mammy. Instead, "Black Womanhood" opens up that rather simple dialogue into a complex dialectic about all black female images, where and how they came to be, and how they continue to fuel perceptions about black women to this day.

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Unexpected turns

The three sections representing different historical and cultural viewpoints -- traditional African, Western colonial and contemporary global -- talk to one another almost audibly. Senzeni Marasela's installation "Our Mother's Bosom," a simple, almost girlish cotton dress with breasts described by metal pins, seems to reinterpret a traditional wood carving from Sierra Leone of a woman offering her breasts during a religious ceremony. Entertainer Josephine Baker in her signature banana skirt is triumphant in one rendering, tragic in another; sometimes she's both at once.

Renee Cox's "Baby Back," a gorgeous, massive photo self-portrait that's a twist on the classic reclining nude -- the subject wears braids piled on her head and patent-leather red heels -- is the nervy companion piece to another, smaller photo by Malick Sidibe of a heavyset Malian woman who poses with her back to the camera, clothed for modesty's sake in a skirt and bra. The entire exhibition is a bit like going into a tunnel of an amusement park ride that's overall more forbidding than fun; "Baby Back" is the fitting entry point into a series of twists and turns that are often unexpected yet flow easily into and out of one another. Like any good ride, this one is plenty surreal and never, ever dull.

For all the distinct artworks and voices in "Black Womanhood," the emotional and historical fulcrum of the show is not art but something much more pedestrian. A collection of postcards from the early 20th century, shot mostly by white photographers on the African continent, document how colonial perceptions of African women started to inform and permanently define (and distort) images of black women all over the world. Some are out in the "jungle," some pose in studios in Western clothes or, in an intoxicating hybrid from the Western point of view, in studio or in chairs wearing traditional dress in which they are bare-breasted, or barer than that. The subjects are most often described in the postcard captions as girls, not women.

Though many of the images are striking, the exploitative intent is clear; as Morris points out, women who thought they were simply having their pictures taken likely had no idea they were participating in their own exploitation. The opportunity to be rendered as black women with a small "b" simply didn't exist.

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