In my past life as an undergraduate at Amherst College, I had an epiphany during my junior year. I had to move fast, so I dropped my Theatre and Dance major, lined my ducks up in a row, switched to a Fine Arts major, and commenced my thesis research. These times involved a lot of soul-searching, on my part, and with that – much resulting disappointment as I ran into a wall repeatedly. I was looking for my artistic forefathers and mothers and coming up short. This experience is common as a Black person in academics who traffics in a new conceptualization of Blackness; I was realizing I was the first to embark on this kind of project, first to open up this Pandora’s box, first to cut back the brush, clear the air, illuminate the path, and create a space for this kind of dialogue. I was alone in a field trying to speak without the proper jargon about something I could feel. Betty Friedan’s hallowed quote echoed through my mind, “the problem with no name.” I agitated.
At some point, I was wandering through the three blocks that made up Amherst town and serendipitously came upon bell hooks’s, Sisters of the Yam. This was the first step. I was learning to apply a new language to deep unacknowledged latent pain and sorrow. There are not a lot of Black photographers for reasons ranging from A to Z; worse, there are even fewer Black female photographers. And even fewer Black women creating art that dealt specifically with the nexus of race and gender due to our former exclusion from feminist theory. From there, I pressed on, harassing professors who knew pieces to my puzzle but, ultimately, were not much help. My photography professor knew of two, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems. He also mentioned Francesca Woodman (and later, her book was my gift from the department!). Others mentioned scholars (philosophers, interdisciplinary studies, etc), and all recommended Kara Walker (not a photographer, by the way) and Sontag’s On Photography at a critique. Another professor suggested reading Audre Lorde and looking at Adrian Piper, the sole Black professor in the Fine Art Department had next to nothing for me except for a survey book on African artists. Guess what? I’m a descendant of slaves. Thanks, this mishit isn’t exactly useful.
The common aesthetic that Black artists of the first generations started from was a historical standpoint. Looking at stolen history, a depressing and oppressive history, many went on to find the value in being descended from someone who was stolen from their home, displaced for generations, abused mentally, emotionally, and physically. Many of these artists sought to create something beautiful out of what is wretched and tragic. Simpson, at points, even tries to create a visual history we do not have via her work. This is the predominant theme. Currently, much of it still deals with the historical tropes, but from a postmodernist perspective that can be critical, and even cynical. Kara Walker is perhaps the most successful example of this type of work. But, again, her work is situated in the antebellum era which no longer has immediate resonance for me, or my peers. Maybe, this is incorrect. But, we have new pressures and issues that are equally worth exploring. The conversation needs to be rounded out, built upon, and made more holistic. There is more to our experience than our history. So, as I was doing research looking for inspiration and constructing an artistic genealogy, I found a few artists that I loved: Deborah Willis (a professor at NYU!), Carla Williams (her student, when Willis was at Princeton), and Renee Cox.
Now, we’ve arrived at what all this is about. Renee Cox. She is one of the most active overlooked artists working today. She attracted a lot of attention, as a Catholic woman from Brooklyn, when she produced her work, Yo Mama’s Last Supper. During the time – the early 2000s – she drew fire from Giuliani and the head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. At the time, her work was being shown in the Sackler Center for Feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum. There were calls for a decency commissions and whatnot. Really, Decency commissions? This was 2001.
Anyways, Carla Williams keeps a website (check my blogroll: carlagirl!), updating it about art competitions, prizes, fellowships, exhibitions, and other photography-related news. She focuses primarily on artists who deal with gender, sexuality, and race – the topics that are somewhat still controversial and induce ire in the conservative hats of art history. And on her website, she had posted an entry about Renee Cox. With that said, Cox is out to piss people off and her work raises some really provocative questions. Not only the questions of gender-bending, the use of marginalized peoples to represent what has been previously reserved for others, but her directness is what is most striking about her work. It’s confrontational, it’s not shy or beats around the bush – critiques I received often for my work. It is uncompromising and cannot be denied. But, at the same time, it’s energetic and positive which would account for my excitement when I read that she has a product line called Maroon Rebels. Thinking of all her work, I was anticipating fantastic clever provocative work. Actually, I don’t know what I was imagining, but I was not imagining what she actually made.
Her line features black t-shirts with bold yellow lettering spelling out phrases that are intended to make you think about something differently. There’s a shirt about Emmett Till, ‘Bougie,’ Coloreds Only, all in all I wasn’t all that impressed. I like the “Reconstruction not to be confused with deconstruction” t-shirt. But, overall, I thought more needed to be done and more may be done – she may only be in the preliminary stages of really pushing this forward. But, I actually wanted the label for Maroon Rebels to be on a t-shirt. I would buy that! I guess, I was hoping for imagery rather than language. Being that she is an artist, it is not unreasonable to expect that. It is frustrating to see such a dearth of beautiful imagery, romantic, glamorized, positive imagery for Black women. Poverty, violence, and oppression has overwhelmed much of our history in this country that there is next to nothing nostalgic or pleasurable about looking back at our history. There is nothing gay about being Black in the 1800s while White girls and women have a plethora of positive role models from Jane Austen to Queen Victoria, while we have Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs.