Back in 2001, while preparing a cover profile of her for the Boston Globe Magazine, I had the distinct privilege of spending time with Kara Walker, arguably America’s most important African-American artist. Walker’s provocative cut paper silhouettes plumb the depths of the highly charged historic experience of African-American women. Other than my conversations with Walker and exposure to her work, however, I must confess that I have very little knowledge of or appreciation for the ways in which Black women have been stereotyped and exploited.
For that very reason, I and every other diversity-deprived viewer in northern New England should probably get to Hanover, New Hampshire, this summer to see Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. Judging from the dense 370-page catalogue (University of Washington Press, $75 hardcover, $50 paper), Black Womanhood is a very heavy show. Organized by Barbara Thompson, the Hood’s Curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections, Black Womanhood uses some 100 paintings, prints, photographs, postcards, sculpture, textiles, and videos to explore how African and African-American women have been portrayed since the 19th century and brings the heavy baggage of colonialism and slavery to bear on an understanding of the work of contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Alison Saar, Maud Sulter, Lalla Essaydi, and Carrie Mae Weems.
Black Womanhood is organized into three conceptual/chronological sections. Iconic Ideologies of Womanhood: African Cultural Perspectives uses traditional African art objects to lay the groundwork for an understanding of how womanhood has been defined. Colonizing Black Women: The Western Imagery features ethnographic postcards and other Western media that tended to exoticize and sexualize African woman in their native and natural state. Meaning and Identity: Personal Journeys into Black Womanhood exhibits contemporary works by African and African-American artists that evoke, satirize, and deconstruct the stereotypes created in the previous sections.
Kara Walker, for example, is represented by her book Freedom: A Fable; A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, which uses Walker’s wickedly deft touch with the 19th century itinerant silhouette artist’s art to parody the servile image of the ante-bellum “mammy.” Maud Sulter, an artist of Scottish and Ghanaian descent, contributes the cover image for Black Womanhood in the form of a gorgeous color photograph entitled “Terpischore.” Sulter’s faux-portrait of an elegant Black woman dressed in a pristine white gown and white wig and holding a lump of fool’s gold is a revisionist picture of empowerment, restoring colonialized African woman to proud selfhood. The works in the exhibition I am most familiar with are Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi’s sumptuous “Les Femmes du Maroc” photographs, which depict Moroccan women covered head to toe in fabric covered with Essaydi’s stream of conscious writings done in classic Arab calligraphy. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lalla Essaydi for Photo District News when she was just completing her MFA at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Her obsessive conceptual portraits of text-covered women respond not only to the myths and realities of harems but also to the Orientalist strain in Western art.
Should you be unable to get to Dartmouth this summer, Black Womanhood will travel to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in the fall. This is a must-see show, a landmark exhibition with resonance far beyond art and art history.
Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover NH, April 1 to August 10, 603-646-2808. Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley MA, September 17 to December 10, 781-283-2501. San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego CA, January 31 to April 26, 2009.