Critics’ Picks

Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2009, archival ink on cotton rag paper, 39 1/2  x 39 1/2".

Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2009, archival ink on cotton rag paper, 39 1/2 x 39 1/2".


“Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities”

Spelman College Museum of Fine Art
350 Spelman Lane SW
September 10–December 5, 2009

Physical representation of the black female is explored in this thoughtful and thematically rich exhibition. Curators Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and Karen Comer Lowe have brought together more than seventy-five often-challenging examples of video, painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography that explore how black women sometimes disguise, adorn, and otherwise manipulate their appearances in an effort to conceal or reveal their identities.

The cross-referencing of voices throughout the show—which, crucially, are neither just black nor just female—is fascinating. The legacy of blackface performance runs through the work of Lyle Ashton Harris, Ellen Gallagher, and Cindy Sherman. Yet Harris’s cross-dressing as female also speaks to Emma Amos’s poignant self-portrait as an artist wearing a jumpsuit painted with a nude male body. Gallagher’s work simultaneously explores the identity issues behind black hair, a concern evident in both Lorna Simpson’s multipaneled study of wigs and Mequitta Ahuja’s exquisite wall-size drawings of black tresses. Sherman’s black-and-white self-portraits initiate an interesting conversation with James Van Der Zee’s and Doris Ulmann’s early black-and-white photographs of African Americans. And Ulmann’s portrait of a young black nun in her habit connects to the costuming of Renee Cox in upper-class trappings, Nandipha Mntambo in home-cured animal skins, Sheila Pree Bright’s portrait of herself morphed into a black Barbie, and Nick Cave’s richly decorated full-body sound suit. These overlapping themes occur across genres and generations, bringing together old favorites and new voices in what is clearly a continuing conversation.