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Roots, reality of black womanhood

San Diego exhibition explores the cultural components of self-

March 14, 2009|Leah Ollman

When the San Diego Museum of Art signed on to host the exhibition "Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body," there was no way of knowing that the show would open just days after the installation of our country's first black first lady. Thanks to Michelle Obama, black womanhood is being redefined in the public arena like never before. Talk about a teachable moment.

Any time, though, would have been apt for this exhibition, because the lessons and questions threaded through it are deep and old. They have to do with the intersections of race, gender and identity, with self-representation and representation by another.

If that sounds like an impossibly broad scope for an exhibition of 125 objects, it is, and the show's structure can feel top-heavy at times. But that's a minor quibble for a curatorial project that so thoughtfully integrates looking with learning, that presents a fascinating array of work across time, place and media and that equips viewers with critical tools for navigating it.

A hefty and illuminating catalog also helps. Curator Barbara Thompson (now at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center) organized the show, and edited the catalog, for the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. San Diego is its third stop.

The show has three discrete sections whose time frames overlap and whose themes interweave. One part presents 19th and 20th century carvings, masks, vessels and other works from Africa that represent the female body, in whole or in part. Terra-cotta storage pots from Nigeria echo the promising swell of the belly and its decorative scarification patterns. A tiny wooden figure symbolizing fertility serves as the stopper for a Tanzanian medicine container -- a gourd wrapped in fiber and seeds -- used during female initiation rites. A leather skirt made by a Tanzanian girl visualizes her life as a married woman through a beaded, abstract map of her future domain.

The second part of the show presents a selection of late 19th and early 20th century photographic postcards depicting African women as types, exotic and primitive.

Artifacts and propaganda instruments of the colonial era, the postcards make a blunt argument for the perceived civilizing influence of European culture on Africa's so-called savages. Contrasts between bare-breasted women in native adornment and others in high-collared dresses were intended to spell out the advantages of the colonialist agenda. The pictures are editorials disguised as evidence, staged as if they were neutral scientific documentation of specimens.

For the third section of the show, Thompson has gathered paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations by contemporary artists originally from Cameroon, Cuba, Morocco, South Africa, Jamaica, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mali, Scotland and the U.S. Familiar names (Kara Walker, Renee Cox, Alison Saar, Wangechi Mutu) are interspersed with the unfamiliar, and although it's exciting to be introduced to so many new artists, it can also be frustrating that most are represented by only one or two works. A single photograph by Zanele Muholi, for instance, feels adrift, however urgent her accompanying statement about preserving the stories of black lesbians.

Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter's video installation, with projections of self-possessed nudes onto richly hued, flowing drapery, has a lush, hypnotic quality. Berni Searle's installation pairing photographs of her nude body dredged in spices with neat, vivid squares of saffron and cloves makes its aromatic presence felt throughout the galleries.

Themes introduced in the show's previous sections burst through with a vengeance in much of the contemporary work, which makes edgy play of stereotypes about sexuality, personal identity, fertility and ideal beauty. The context amplifies the artists' dialogues with established roles and forms; one of the most gratifying and intriguing aspects of the show is the connections that emerge from section to section.

Malick Sidibe's small photographic portraits of ordinary Malian women counter beautifully and tenderly the harsh claims of the colonialist postcards. A gorgeous blackened terra-cotta vessel by Magdalene Odundo and an elegantly reductive ceramic figure by Etiye Dimma Poulsen resonate beautifully with the more traditional, functional ceramic works.

A wooden breastplate used to denote pregnancy in initiation rituals in Tanzania is on display in the exhibition's first section. A similar object shows up in a self-portrait by Penny Siopis. She holds the dark, carved object up to the front of her lighter, leaner nude body, suggesting some sort of communion and self-identification, which she simultaneously cancels out by wearing the kind of white cotton gloves used to handle artwork not in circulation in the everyday world.

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