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Through April 26, 2009 at San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego

by Roberta Carasso

Black Womanhood” is an historic exhibition of relics from the past. It is also a reminder of the need to eradicate stereotypical thinking about Black people in general and Black women in particular, and to reclaim what has been lost. At the heart of the exhibition, is a presentation of how Black women’s bodies were once seen as objects rather than as vessels for living beings, a reminder that treating a body as any other soulless object is inevitably demeaning.

Allison Saar, "Cache," 2006,
wood, ceiling tin, wire,
(photo courtesy L.A. Louver Gallery).

"Gold Coast Girl", postcard.

Barbara Thompson, chief curator and originator of the exhibition, brings together over 100 sculptures, prints, postcards, photographs, paintings, textiles, and video installations by artists from Africa, Europe, America and the Caribbean. As she obtained new sources of art and documentation, abundant evidence of negative interpretations and imagery of black women’s bodies in the Western mindset revealed intertwining histories of (mis)representation. Perhaps the greatest affirmation of timeliness was that the exhibition opened as the Presidential Inauguration took place, and a Black family became the ideal for much of the world.

To put this vast volume of material in context Thompson categorized the art into themes of: ideals of beauty, fertility and sexuality, maternity and motherhood, and women’s identities and social roles. Because themes have a way of not necessarily staying in neat groupings, the art was also divided into three larger intersecting perspectives: African, Western Colonial, and Contemporary Global. The exhibition begins with representations of womanhood from various African cultures made during the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. Simultaneously, a troubled history ensued as full-fledged, productive African adults were identified by non-Africans as second class property of colonial regimes. Contemporary artists now view this entire baffling history as it unravels politically, socially, and artistically. We experience their view via work that is the most powerful in the exhibition, because only the voice of the present can be a vehicle for healing.

African art has always presented narratives about life, the after-life, and beliefs about stages of generational experiences. Here they reveal specific ideas about womanhood as represented in different cultural contexts from both the male and female perspectives.  

Probably, most difficult to swallow are the colonial images in which Black women were presented as savage, vulgar, and as beasts on display. Clothed and unclothed, by choice or perforce, they were staged on commonly obtained picture postcards. Some women were made to parade naked in side-shows, manhandled by anyone for a few coins. A handwritten comment on one postcard of two Zulu mothers and their babies describes them as “horrid-looking creatures” Another colonial-era postcard negatively contrasts a Zulu woman in native dress to another in refined domestic servant’s uniforms.  Ingrid Mwangi, a Kenyan-German addresses the issue of the stripped-down black woman. In her video installation “Dressed Like Queens,” she and a semi-nude pregnant woman appear in rhythmical sequence in three projections, sequestered behind three different colored and patterned curtains, which give the illusion of their being dressed in beautiful robes. Mwangi, who is seen as white in Africa and black in Europe, creates a dialogue that questions her precarious identity.

Also memorable are photographs by Scottish-Ghanaian artist, Maud Sulter, who portrays the black woman in all her beauty, even when she is dressed, unexpectedly, in a pure white 18th-century European gown and wig. In her self-portrait, Renée Cox, a Jamaican-American, presents herself as a reclining nude in all perfection, wearing red heels and holding a whip, remnants of the master-slave narrative and the sexual objectification of black women. Cuban photographer Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons asks whether “Identity Could Be A Tragedy.” Alison Saar creates a riveting sculpture of a nude black woman, a remnant of injustices that was, and still remains.  Made from wood, ceiling tin, and wire, the figure lies immobilized on the floor, her long black wiry hair weighted down by the enormous stone of ignorance. In contrast, Etiyé Dimma Poulsen, an Ethiopian-Danish artist, offers a ceramic sculpture of a woman in an orange wrapper that is reminiscent of ancient African depictions. Poulsen glorifies and returns the black woman to her true and complex identity--a universal vessel of beauty and irreplaceable contribution.