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Black female identity and art, at Spelman College Museum

“Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities” is a mouthful of a title, but it’s the only thing I’d change about this smart, engaging exhibition at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

Nandipha Mntambo:  ""Europa," 2008, archival ink on cotton rag paper, 44 x 44. Courtesy the artist and the Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town
Nandipha Mntambo: “”Europa,” 2008, archival ink on cotton rag paper, 44 x
44. Courtesy the artist and the Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

Once you’ve seen Nandipha Mntambo’s arresting photograph “Europa,” you might cotton to my alternative title: “The Persona Is Political.” In this gender-bending, table-turning rendition of the Greek myth (Zeus, disguised as a bull, ravishes the maiden), the South African artist assumes the form of a bull and stares menacingly at the viewer.

Take that, Titian, and all you other male chauvinist Old-Master painters of oglecious nudes. But I would surmise that art and sexism aren’t the only targets in her sights. The piece also alludes to the rape of the African continent. Colonizers and multi-national corporations, watch your backs.

As I explained in my review in Friday’s AJC, curators Andrea Barnwell, the museum’s director, and Karen Comer Lowe take an expansive approach to their subject. “At one end of the spectrum, for example, is Gordon Parks’ 1963 photo of Ethel Shariff, then leader of the women’s corps of the Black Muslims, whose nun-like garb announces purity and discipline. At the other are videos by Kalup Linzey, the female -impersonator/performance artist, who does the diva with convincing wit.”

(The show encourages digressions, so here’s one. Like Tyler Perry, Linzey plays women for laughs. Why is it that men in drag are funny, but women in drag are not? Is Linzey’s satire really a socially acceptable disguise for wish fulfillment?)

Lyle Ashton Harris: "Billie #1," 2008, pigment print, 40 x 34 inches. Courtesy the artist and Adamson Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Lyle Ashton Harris: “Billie #1,” 2008, pigment print, 40 x 34 inches. Courtesy the artist and Adamson Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Ideals of beauty and their tyranny are recurring themes. Atlanta photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s “Plastic Bodies” series, which merge her image with black Barbies, fit right in. So do iconic works by Ellen Gallagher and Lorna Simpson on the subject of hair.

From my upcoming review:

“Racism and the dehumanizing ‘male gaze’ (the idea that women are no more than the sum of their body parts) are a one-two punch in ‘Hot-En-Tot,’ a photo by Renée Cox. She photographs herself nude wearing exaggerated prosthetic breasts and bottom in an allusion to the humiliating treatment of the African woman known as ‘The Hottentot Venus,’ who was exhibited nude in sideshows in 19th-century Europe.

On the adjacent wall, Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s photographs, which present women who are shrouded almost  to the point of disappearance under a layer of cloth, suggest that covering up women comes from the same dehumanizing attitude.”

“Undercover” introduces unfamiliar artists we need to know, particularly a formidable group of African artists, and presents familiar ones in new contexts. Once again, The Spelman Museum of Art affirms its position as one of Atlanta’s major resources.”

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