Black Woman In Nude

 

 

 

Flo_Allen_modeling
Harry Bowden, American ( 1907-1965) Florence Allen for a drawing class at CSFA, May 4, 1948, black and white photograph. Courtesy of the Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997, in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

 

I am painfully broke.

My diet consists of single slices of pizza, boxed macaroni & cheese, and Wendy’s chicken nuggets. I don’t have a car and my class schedule leaves little time for employment so I’ve learned to barely survive off of whatever financial aid I get each term. I embraced minimalism, that is until  I heard that the art department needed models.

” I could do that,” I thought, though in a second I became mortified at the idea of being naked in front of people. What’s weird about it is that I am not really shy about nudity. I’m comfortable with looking at images of naked people ( in art) and I never feel aroused by those images, so why I would objectify my own body in a nonsexual context. Why would I deny myself the quintessential art school experience of posing nude? What are my hang ups? What is my baggage?

Unpacking that

It is no secret that the Black female body has historically been subjected to caricature. This is not a new thing. I find myself jumping through hoops so that my anger would not be interpreted as “bitch”, my desire interpreted as “slut” and my compassion interpreted as ” mammy.” Despite my best efforts, I know that respectability is a myth and I am not free from such gaze.

In terms of my Black body, I have internalized a type of shame that comes from my ancestral memory. I have seen images of Black women’s naked bodies displayed on postcards. Black women are and have been aware of how we are portrayed. Black mothers chastise their daughters about being ” fast” in efforts to protect their daughter’s purity because she knows how the world sees black girls. Black women have been walking on eggshells for years and have to constantly prove their humanity and womanhood.

 

renee cox baby back.jpg
Renee Cox Baby Back, from the series American Family
2001
Archival digital print
30 x 40 in.
Courtesy of the artist

 

To pose naked for a classroom filled with mostly White students would definitely be in experience for me. To exist in a space, exposed in all of my glory would be performance art. I would stand there thinking about the politics attached to my body. I would roll over to my side and think about what it means to be a Black woman and to be naked in front of a room full of White people. I would stand up again, but this time with my arms in the air, thinking about the concept of me being on display and being completely vulnerable to that gaze. At that moment it would not matter if they were judging me. Straight away they would have noticed my differences.  They would have noticed a body that did not resemble their own. Perhaps it would conjure some fantasy of what they imagined a Black woman’s body to be?

I don’t know.

There is so much discourse attached to my body and I hold it as neither a burden nor a charge. The simple act of me performing as “nude model” requires so much that I may or may not be prepared for.

If I were to put myself in that position, would it be considered a statement? Am I breaking barriers? Am I rejecting the ideals of womanhood, the fantasies of my oppressor, and promoting myself? Is it that deep? Isn’t this a job? Aren’t I getting paid?

 

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Black Art & Performing Blackness

Clifford Owens “Obligatory Self-Portrait of a Crying Performance Artist,” 2013/2016
Archival inkjet print
5.25 x 5.25 image on
11 x 8.5-inch paper
Edition of 50 + 2 APs

I went to see Clifford Owens. I remember looking him up the night before the talk and thinking ” okay this is going to be weird.” I was correct. It felt more like a show than a talk. I entered the room very un-cool like with pen and paper ready to take notes. I was able to write down very little until he yelled at me and everyone else writing down each and every word he said. He asked us how we are listening when all we were doing was copying his words. He was right. If I were to mindlessly jot down notes, I probably wouldn’t have been able to really reflect on what he said: ” Be African American, Be very African American

What does it mean to be very African American? Owens did not offer any explanation, he simply went on with what he was saying. I don’t remember what prompted this statement but I looked it up and this statement was an instruction by William Pope.L, veteran performance artist, and was sent to Owens for his Anthology project. It was interesting that he said this to a room full of mostly white people. What could white students gain from this statement? Could they ” put on” Blackness? Could they perform Blackness? Would the white student disregard this statement thinking it wasn’t for them? Regardless of what Owens intended to mean, I instantly thought ” how do I become very African American, how can I be the most Black?”

5_PopeL_EatingWSJ_2000_72dpi_3000pixwide
William Pope.L performing “Eating the Wall Street Journal” (2000) at The Sculpture Center, New York, 2000. (image courtesy the artist, photo by Lydia Grey)

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity politics in art. When I am looking for new art by Black artists, I have had to make a conscious effort not to pay unequal attention to artists who’s subject matter circulates around being a Black person. Though of course there is nothing wrong with Black artists creating work where they center themselves, I feel that it is my responsibility to see artists as whole persons rather than mouthpieces for the movement. Still, I have to check myself when looking at art and have to ask  ” do I really like this piece or do I just like it because it is about Blackness?”

“Black art” is not a genre. Although representation in media is something that is and will continue to be of importance, it is necessary that we don’t look to Black artists to limit their potential in order to entertain us through performative acts of Blackness. For example, if there is an exhibit focused on Black artists and all we see is work telling similar narratives, what does this say about the diversity or uniqueness of Black creatives? Does the artist’s ability to wear Blackness reflect their merit as a Black person making art? Are they then a good and loyal Black artist?

From what I’ve heard from other Black artists, it’s very annoying to be expected to perform a certain level of Blackness. It seems that Black people are given the responsibility of promoting the race, and should be creating work that reflects the Black experience at all times. Also, non-Black people often look at Black artists and assume that their work is about some really deep Black thing. The issue with this is that although art centering Black topics may be beneficial, it can also impose a cap on the imaginations of these artists and reduces their work to simple genre pieces, regardless of the styles or concepts that they approach. It will forever be considered ” Black Art” and that’s a shame.

When do we look at work by white artists and attribute it to the artist’s being 25% Irish, 30% German, 15% Italian, and 30%  Dutch? We don’t right? White artists are given much more agency than artists of color. There is no qualifier to a White artist’s work, they are simply making art.

Why Black Art & Nothing Else?

 


It had come to my attention that I should be writing more.

This is my first semester as an art history student and to be honest, I’ve never felt more out of place. My first couple art history classes were two survey courses covering the entire history of visual arts through a mostly European perspective. I found it difficult to engage in discussion as I did not have a strong background in European history aside from the basics covered in high school and although I understood the material, I didn’t really care.

I know it’s weird to say that I do not care about the discipline that I’m paying so much for. I do enjoy art, and I am extremely passionate about its history, I just found it rather difficult to relate to or love the works of art I was shown every day. I felt conflicted by this and thought that I was a fraudulent art student and that I didn’t really like art and I was not worthy to be a student in the college. Eventually, I realized my disconnect with the lectures was directly from me not feeling included and not seeing myself reflected in the artwork. I can imagine that my mostly white peers had little difficulty feeling represented through every period of Eurocentric art history. It was not until we reached  Modernism did I see a black art artist. Of course, during the earlier periods, we briefly discussed the generic “African” pieces such as fertility objects but that’s about it. With only four months to cover the entire canon of art history, a lot of stuff ( global art) was left out because we simply did not have the time.

In my conceptual art class, we had to come up with a mixtape and I titled mine ” My Look, My Identity” based on Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem ” Still Do I Keep My Look, My Identity” and my professor did not get it because he did not know who Gwendolyn Brooks was. At that moment I’d finally had enough. Why is it that I am expected to be an expert in knowing every single ” important” white artist, white artwork, and white narratives, but when I  mention a black creative or show enthusiasm for black art suddenly everyone else cannot relate? As if blackness is second rate or an elective. AS IF!

So, as I prepare for my career as an art writer, I decided to only write about black art and black artists. I am not writing about white people because I do not have to. I am not writing about other people of color because I do not wish to speak for other groups, benefit from their experiences, and take away from writers from that group. My work will be dedicated to both loving and critiquing the work of artists in the African diaspora and discussing topics that relate to the black experience, especially the black woman, femme, and queer experience. My work on this blog will not be academic. I want for my writing to be as informal and approachable as possible. I want for others to be able to engage in discussion and not have to feel the need to have earned a Ph.D. Art does not need to be that deep.

I am really excited to begin this process, and I hope You as the reader enjoys what I have to say!

Best!

– Tyra Mishell