“Black Womanhood”

“Black Womanhood” began by presenting the racialized female body as both absence and presence: Photographs portraying a female body (in some, covered in spices; in others, as negative space surrounded by spices) hung near the entrance—documents of Berni Searle’s performance about her mixed-race heritage and the trade that instigated South Africa’s colonization (Traces, 1999). Nearby was Renée Cox’s photographic response to Ingres, wherein she arches her back on a yellow divan, flaunting naught but a fly whip and cherry heels (Baby Back, 2001). Providing a contrast to Cox’s exhibitionism, the women in Lalla Essaydi’s photographs are completely veiled behind white drapery inscribed with henna text (Les Femmes du Maroc [Moroccan Women, 2005]). Throughout the first gallery, representations of the African female body were contested and repositioned in response to Western and African stereotypes, and the titular terms black and womanhood were effectively destabilized.

Taking an innovative approach to deconstructing and reconstructing black female identity, the show was laid out in three separate sections, each focusing on its own time period and correlative viewpoints: “traditional,” or precolonial, African art objects demonstrating African perceptions of womanhood, with fertility being of utmost importance; Western typological or pornographic photographs of African women under colonial rule; and contemporary art by African and diasporic women (and two men), meant to expose negative stereotypes and create positive reimaginings.

The curatorial conceit of exploring Western and African perceptions of female identity across the whole of Africa and the diaspora was ambitious and exciting, and the varied media and sheer volume of objects (more than one hundred) generated intriguing connections, but the end result was disappointingly confused. Despite her caveat that she attempted neither a survey nor a holistic approach to history, curator Barbara Thompson presented enough work that the gaps were felt, and attempted so much that the ideas seemed jumbled. Precolonial Africa was rendered static and timeless, given the show’s generalization of “traditional” notions of women’s bodies and old-fashioned presentation strategies. African artistic production under colonial rule was largely skipped, despite its having set the stage for today’s explosion of contemporary artists on the global scene. Seydou Keïta’s idealized studio shots of women, for example, would have fit perfectly here as self-constructions of “black womanhood,” but were regrettably absent.

Particularly odd was the title’s interchangeability of African and black—a problematic conflation, as illustrated by Essaydi’s Moroccan Women, who are presumably not black, as well as by Searle’s vivid complication of racial categories as a whole. The terms most begging for interrogation here (black, woman, African, traditional) go strangely undefined, at least in wall texts. It is not until around catalogue page two hundred—in a text by artist Hassan Musa—that we finally read that “African” and “black” were notions invented by Westerners. While the curator chose artworks that, especially when presented together, serve to upend these terms, it would have helped for Thompson to question them explicitly, to bring the show out of a 1990s identity mentality and into the more deconstructive and open-ended mode that the pieces themselves demanded.

The shifts in media, meaning, and chronology also felt jumpy. However, the layout emphasized the remarkable contrast between the three-dimensional tactility, performative nature, and relative abstraction of precolonial African art, and the two-dimensional flattening of space in the highly naturalistic photos and postcards by colonials, what visual anthropologist Christopher Pinney calls the colonial rationalization of space.

The show argued convincingly that Western perceptions of African femininity have listed narrowly between the humiliations of Saartjie Baartman (the South African woman caged and paraded as the “Hottentot Venus”) and Josephine Baker—the former abused beyond words, the latter a participant in her own coercion. “Mammy” and Aunt Jemima were revisited and reworked as well, but the distinction between the white American maternalization and desexualization of the “African woman” and the French eroticization and faux primitivization of the “African woman” qua Baker—a contrast that speaks to the ways in which degradation takes nationally specific forms—was not made strongly enough. The heartfelt ambitions and innovative approach of “Black Womanhood” deserve praise, but the show’s trajectory felt at times confused and at others strangely out-of-date.

Allison Moore