“Black Womanhood” Exhibit on Display at Hood

The Hood Museum of Art recently debuted “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body,” an exhibit showcasing the work of African, European, American, and Caribbean artists. The tripartite exhibit presents centuries’ worth of portrayals of black women: “Iconic Ideologies of Womanhood” features traditional African art from tribes across the continent, “Colonizing Black Women: The Western Imaginary” simultaneously presents and condemns the over-sexualized mystique that Western cultures placed on black women, and “Meaning and Identity: Personal Journeys into Black Womanhood” highlights works of contemporary black female artists. Linking these three together were four common themes (Ideals of Beauty, Fertility and Sexuality, Maternity and Motherhood, and Identities and Social Roles) that attune the viewer to the evolution of black womanhood’s identity throughout history.

The contemporary pieces on display constitute much of the exhibit. Many carry heavy political overtones, commenting on inequality still all too present in the modern world. South African artist Zanele Muholi addresses racial and gender inequality but also fights for acceptance of black lesbians in her 2003 photograph entitled Sex ID Crisis. “The preservation and mapping of our herstories is the only way for us black lesbians to be visible,” Muholi said of her work. Hanging in the center of the exhibit is Nandipha Mntambo’s Balandzeli, a sculpture of the feminine body whose construction entirely of cowhide rendered it one of the most striking pieces of all. Similarly compelling was Fazal Sheikh’s Amino Alio Abdi and her son Mohammed, feeding center, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya. The photograph shows a young mother and infant in one of Kenya’s Somali refugee camps, addressing the issue of rape–a tragedy which has become an everyday occurrence in such camps.

The art of Jamaican-American artist Renée Cox was particularly prominent throughout; her 2001 work Baby Back is at the forefront of the exhibit. The gigantic photograph displays the artist lounging nude with various symbols of Western sexuality, including a whip, yellow rose, and red spike heels, and in a pose deliberately imitating (and challenging) that of the subject in Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque. Elsewhere in the exhibit, Cox’s Hot-En-Tot comments on the fate of Saartje Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who became known forever as the “Hottentot Venus” after being sold to a French circus in 1814. Baartman’s brains, skeleton, and genitals were placed on public display in Paris’s Musée de l’Homme after her death, and these parts remained in the museum until Nelson Mandela demanded their return to South Africa in 1994.

“Black Womanhood” confronts negative Western stereotypes perpetuated since colonial times, from obscene exaggerations of African female bodies to these women’s alleged “pathological sexuality” and deviance. In every way Westerners sought to depict these women as “the counterpoint to white female beauty and morality”, yet the art works in “Black Womanhood” collectively refute this notion again and again. The exhibit contrasts pejorative images of the exotic, hyper-sexual “Black Venus” and even the overly maternal Aunt Jemima with manifestations of the black female experience in all its reality. The deplorable Western oppression which black women endured for centuries clearly did nothing to diminish these women’s tremendous powers of artistic expression. The works of “Black Womanhood” are sure to instill an entirely new view and appreciation of a rich and vibrant, though grossly underappreciated, culture: a culture which at long last is finally receiving much-deserved celebration.

The exhibit will be on display until August 10.