Black Female Artists Embody Visibility

Shantay Robinson


Throughout history, black female bodies have been a source of capital for hegemonic powers in the form of servitude through labor or sex. During slavery, in the United States, black women’s bodies were used to create a labor force for which they received no benefits. Their children could have been stripped away and sold off at any time. Black women were stripped of their humanity, performing the role of mules in a white dominated society. Not only was the enslaved black woman forced to work and produce as much as men, they were raped as a form of punishment and procreation. If resistant, black women were victims to further abuse. Even post-emancipation, while working as paid domestics, black women’s resistance to the advancement of white males (fathers and sons) would be a risk to their livelihoods.  

One of the most heinous violent acts against a black woman might be the dismemberment of Sara Baartman. In Europe, during the 19th century, Sara Baartman was the source of spectacle for her shapely figure. She was brought from her village near Cape Town South Africa with the promise of becoming a rich woman. She became known as the Hottentot Venus and was put on display where viewers ogled at her derriere. Baartman was contracted to perform but she could neither read or write. From 1812 to 1814, she performed as a show girl working six to ten hours and saw little of the money she was promised. In 1815, she died from complications with a recurrent flu. After her death, her body parts were preserved and put on display to showcase the inferiority of Africans. Her remains were not removed from the Musee de l’Homme in Paris until 1974, and they were not returned to South Africa until 2002, eight years after then-president Nelson Mandela suggested they be returned home.  

Saartjie “Sara” Baartman “The Hottentot Venus”

Not only has the black female body been physically shamed, her image has been attacked as well. Black women are typically known for one of the three stereotypes that continue to perpetuate society even today: Jezebels, Mammies, or Angry Black Woman/Sapphires. Black women are more than the stereotypes that depict them, but they have been deprived of that humanity.  None of these images are attractive. The Jezebel is a hypersexual woman that would steal away with white women’s men. The Mammy thinks of everyone before herself, she is the matriarch who takes care of families and is often seen as the domestic in white households, and she is not very feminine. Sapphire is considered unintelligent and domineering. These stereotypes have been depicted in American media since its inception and have yet to be eradicated. These images are perpetuated in our culture through the images of black women in television and film. But in recent years the diversity of black female characters in television and film has increased in an attempt to defy the stereotypes. To counter negative perceptions of their bodies, is a contemporary movement spurred by a host of women including visual artists attempting to reconfigure black women’s understanding of themselves. Black women are taking control of their own image, and they are refusing to allow racism and sexism to deem them invisible or hypervisible.  When visible, they sanction the images they propagate. The dominant culture renders black women invisible for their race and hyper visualize them, as deviant, for their sex. Systemic racism and sexism erase the inherent humanity of the black female body.

For the black woman, invisibility exists on two fronts. According to Kellie Jones’ 1990 ArtForum essay “In Their Own Image,” black signals male and female signals white woman; this binary logic renders the black woman invisible. While black men have some similarity to the dominant culture, as they are men, black women bear the load of double negative black and women. In “Black/Female/Body Hypervisibility and Invisibility: A Black Feminist Augmentation of Feminist Leisure Research,” the authors state that at the same time, black women are invisible to the dominant culture, black women’s bodies are hypervisible: seen as hypersexual and deviant. The stereotypical images of black women that make them invisible or hypervisible are being combated by the work of two black female visual artists, Lorna Simpson and Wangechi Mutu, who develop alternatives to counter the narratives that have been the black woman’s story for centuries.

when the control of black female image is in the hands of the other, they are subject to being treated with disrespect.”

Simpson and Mutu position the black female body in Western art cultural spaces, giving agency to black women. In the work of both Simpson and Mutu, their identities as black women cannot and should not be distinct from the art they create. They disrupt traditionally homogenous and patriarchal spaces with their presence to access the sightlines of the world at large. These female artists are stepping out of the margins into the center of discourse to make black women and their identities visible. Black women artists have the capacity to reach a large number of people to share with them ideas about embodiment that would be more difficult as written treatise. With the efficiency of an artwork, viewers are forced into discourse with artists that would take considerably longer to espouse in another way.

Lorna Simpson is a conceptual artist who has been in the forefront of contemporary Western art for the past 30 years. She was the first African American woman to participate in the Venice Biennale in 1990. In his article, “Bye, Bye Black Girl: Lorna Simpson’s Figurative Retreat” Huey Copeland cited a New York Newsday article written by Amei Wallach in 1990, she describes the year as a time when “outsiders,” based on skin color, languages, national origins and sexual preference, were gaining attention from the art establishment possibly based on guilt.  Inserting black women into historically white spaces meant that she was being subversive to the very establishment that oppresses her. Simpson’s and other’s work at the time was seen as an end to white patriarchy. While this might be an overstatement or oversimplification, at the time, it was radical to allow, especially, black female artists into the mainstream art world.

Guarded Conditions (1989) Lorna Simpson

Guarded Conditions (1989) is a series of panels where the subject, a black woman, is depicted six times in the same position with her back turned to the photographer. The words “Sex Attacks” and “Skin Attacks” are placed below the repeated images, mirroring the repetition. Nika Elder explains that art curators and critics deem the work as challenging traditional portraiture because the face of the subject is not visible. Guarded Conditions embodies the black female experience – one where she is invisible and present at the same time. The invisibility of the woman in this work of art is evidenced by her back being turned to the viewer so her face is not seen. The woman in the Guarded Conditions is dressed in a plain white shift dress that does not connote a particular time and hides the shape of her body. The only identifying qualities we see of the woman are her skin color and her sex. She is not regarded as an individual with particular characteristics, but simply a black woman.

The text included in the artwork describes the kind of violence that has been inflicted on the black female body for centuries, and its repetition alludes to the fact that it has been happening repeatedly throughout time. The multiplicity and pose of the figure in the artwork illustrate how the multitude of black women respond to the repeated violence she has been subjected to. Her posture is straight, arms folded behind her, back turned. She has survived. She is here. By Simpson posing the subject in this way, she is showing us the black woman’s irrepressible yet restrained stance on the racist and sexist violence.

The absence of the face, the timelessness of the dress, the folding of the arms and the words repeated below the images, allow for a number of women to identify and see themselves in the artwork. The quintessence of the artworks and anonymity of the subject allow black women to recognize themselves in the work. Simpson created this image to permit black women to come to terms with their struggles and it was made for others to witness.

Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan born multi-media artist who created a series of collages called the Ark Collection (2006) with images sourced from African American hard-core pornographic magazines in a mash-up with postcards of rural traditionally adorned African women. Mutu’s goal is to aestheticize the vulgar pornographization of the black female form that is already prolific in our culture. Mutu and others feel the black porn industry is an affront to the image of black women who have had to continuously fight for respectability in the face of the Jezebel stereotype. Mutu’s collages erase those body parts of the pornographic images that are most vulgar by inserting the sober images of African villagers in their place.

In exhibition, the collages are presented behind glass as if restricting their existence. The title, Ark Collection, comes from the collages being presented two-by-two as if saving them from an immanent flood of criticism of the black female body. While the sexualized images affirm the trope of the hypersexualized black woman, the images of the half-nude village women are what society is okay with when imaging the black female body respectably.  While Mutu’s work expresses very dichotomous images, of sex workers and African village women, there doesn’t seem to be enough space in her work to consider the material circumstances of either group of women. Either way black women are more than the dichotomies offered up through the sourced visual imagery she uses in her collages.

The Ark Collection (2006) Wangechi Mutu

In her work as an internationally acclaimed visual artist, she is countering the narratives that have plagued black women of the African Diaspora for centuries, and she’s developing a new narrative, one where the black female body is not violated or looked on as incongruous. She subverts the very notion of their hypersexuality with the concept of asexuality thereby creating ambiguity regarding sexuality. Granting ambiguity to the black feminine allows black women to create their own standards.

Carolina Beaumont, New York, 1976 (1976) Jean-Paul Goude

In reference to French photographer, Jean-Paul Goude’s collection of photographs Jungle Fever of black female derrieres, critic Janell Hobson in the article “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body,” calls them “comical representations, mimicking similar ‘humor’ in depictions of the Hottentot Venus” and that it “renders black female sexuality as too deviant, too bizarre, to take seriously.”  Hobson goes on to say that, “With the focus on their infamous behinds, black women’s bodies are typically ridiculed, not adulated. Because of this, it is worth noting that black male bodies are less stigmatized by the label of ‘deviant sexuality.’” Goude’s work is a prime example that when the control of black female image is in the hands of the other, they are subject to being treated with disrespect.  

Simpson and Mutu are creating a counter narrative to the centuries of negative stereotypes black women have endured and the world has gotten used to. With a shift in the perception of the black female body will likely come the respect and the care black women, like any other human, deserves.  

The contemporary moment is still fraught with stigmas and stereotypes, but as public figures, Simpson and Mutu use their platform to dispel stigmas and stereotypes and insert other narratives. As more black women begin to reclaim responsibility for defining themselves and continue dictating their own images, they will not feel as if it is anyone else’s responsibility to define who they are. The stereotypes and stigmas attached to them can be eradicated with enough effort put forth in creating alternative narratives of the black female experience. And as Patricia Hill Collins, notes it is the black female intellectual’s responsibility to usher in those alternatives. Simpson and Mutu offer black women some choices.

A version of this article was presented at Northeast Modern Languages Association’s 2019 Conference.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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