ABOVE: Ashley Cathey, Keisha, 40”x60”, Acrylic and oil on Canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.
No Longer The Watchers: Centering Black Women & Femmes in Art
Black women artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Lorna Simpson, and Ashley Cathey reclaim the image and narrative of Black womanhood through their work. Too often, representations of Black women and femmes in art have been created and curated by those who do not live this experience. While the history of centering Black women in art is predated by a long history of objectification and misrepresentation, the aforementioned artists engage in the revolutionary act of centering fully realized Black women in their work.
One of the most prominent acts of objectification is the display of Sara Baartman, famously known as ‘Hottentot Venus’. In the early 1800s, Baartman’s body was on display for an exhibition that toured London. The ‘Hottentot Venus’ show was described as a marvel of nature, or a freak show, which cumulated in the unveiling of Baartman’s large buttocks.1 During this show, Baartman would walk onto the stage, sing a song, and turn around allowing for spectators to view her buttocks and even poke her with a stick.2 This exhibition reduced Baartman to her body parts, giving value to only her anatomy as a form of entertainment. While she was certainly not the only African woman or person who was coerced by colonizers into this disparaging form of entertainment, Baartman’s story represents a larger conversation about Black women and the lack of agency over their bodies and narratives.
Black women have faced bodily objectification throughout history, which is one of the core reasons Black feminist thought addresses the power of self-definition. Like Baartman, many Black women have not been the curators of images regarding their own bodies and stories. Black feminist poet Audre Lorde addresses this experience when she says, “In order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as American as apple pie have always had to be watchers.”3 Lorde is referring to Black women, such as Baartman, who have had to stand by and watch the narrative concerning their identity be written by their oppressors. One of the ways Black feminism has challenged objectifying images of the Black woman body is by creating images defined by Black women themselves. Many Black women artists have created works to embody this Black feminist perspective that allows for these artists to redefine conversations about their identity.
In an effort to reclaim images of Black women, Wangechi Mutu’s assembled images in Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors: Adult Female Sexual Organs confront the painful focus on the anatomy of Black women instead of their individual identities. In these images, Mutu builds the face of a figure from different materials like magazines and medical books. Each figure features part of the female anatomy–specifically the uterus and uterine tumors. These highly abstracted collages distort the idea of what it means to represent ‘the face’ of someone. This distortion evokes feelings of pain and confusion in the viewers as they try to piece together this face that is intentionally fractured.
Through these works, Mutu acknowledges that images of Black women tend to focus on their anatomy and ignore real, lived experiences and narratives. Among those are transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary individuals who identify with the Black femme identity, but not with the female anatomy. Mutu tackles this by creating images that don’t explicitly represent cisgender Black women.4 These abstract images represent those marginalized and objectified without creating restrictions for who is allowed to identify with the Black femme identity.
The images also offer a distorted, even unrecognizable, figure through her collaging process. This process forces the viewer to think about Mutu’s choices and their significance. For example, almost all of the images come from magazine cutouts of White women, representing the idealized beauty standards projected in these mainstream magazines that almost never feature Black women.5 In doing this, Mutu exposes how Black women are held to beauty standards based in Whiteness. As a result, this work addresses how features commonly associated with Blackness are not seen as beautiful and how this impacts the way Black women are viewed and visually misrepresented.
In Art on my Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks investigates the Black woman figure through an analysis of a Lorna Simpson piece called The Waterbearer. This black and white photograph positions a Black woman as the water bearer, pouring water from both hands out of two objects: a plastic bottle and a metal tankard. The figure is wearing a white, loose-fitting dress and the viewer can only see her from behind. The photograph is paired with the following text that speaks to the content of the work:
She saw him disappear by the river,
They asked her to tell what happened,
Only to discount her memory.
Simpson places the figure in a position of power in this image. The power is held in her stance that limits the viewer’s access to her emotions and thoughts. The accompanying phrases reinforce the idea that she is not giving away her memory for it to only be discounted or forgotten. As a result, her narrative is kept safe in her space and view, out of sight of the racist and sexist society who mean to delegitimize her memory. The artist treats her body as a way to convey messages about her experience instead of an anatomical marvel. bell hooks argues that Simpson’s work brings awareness to the aspects of the Black woman identity not represented in White mainstream culture because it does not reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes commonly associated with Black woman figures.6 Forging an alternate path, Simpson centers Black women and their narratives by using her work to visually communicate the importance of being humanized in works of art.
Like Mutu and Simpson, Kentucky native Ashley Cathey reclaims images of Black women through her use of arguably the most important artmaking tool of redefinition: portraiture. Cathey’s portraits, featured in the 2018 exhibition Looking Up: Heroes For Today – An LVA Exhibit at Metro Hall, are an act of reclamation. Portraiture has always been used to establish many defining characteristics about a person such as power, beauty, and importance. It is also an art form that has been used to uphold racist and sexist representations of Black women. Historically, Black women have either been ignored entirely in portraiture or used as props in portraits for White subjects looking to show their status of wealth and power. As a result, Black women were defined not by their realities or lived experience. Instead, they were defined by how their White counterparts chose to depict them, rendering Black women silenced by these images.
Cathey’s twelve portraits depict women she describes as “heroes of everyday life”, all coming from different backgrounds but united by one experience. The portraits are rendered in a stylized fashion which is mostly seen through Cathey’s use of color. While painting Black people, Cathey does not use the color black. Instead, she uses a variety of colors like pink, yellow, and green to create the skin tone of these figures. This choice reflects how Black skin comes in many different shades of black, brown, cream, and tan. The figures are placed on empty, colored backgrounds that force the viewers to focus on the face of these women. In different ways, each of these women have had to reconcile their truth with how people choose to see them. For example, one of the portraits depicts Tytianna Wells, a Kentucky native who is a writer, activist, and internationally recognized poet. While speaking with Cathey, we both immediately acknowledged Wells as being someone who has a “beautiful energy that fills the room.” Cathey, however, intentionally chose not to portray that energy by not depicting Wells with a smile. In doing so, Cathey sheds light on how many people will choose to not see the humanity in her face and asks viewers to consider how the consequences of that choice are harmful to Black women.
While speaking with Cathey about these portraits, the need for Black women and femmes to be centered in art so we can own our narratives became abundantly clear. The work of Mutu, Simpson, and Cathey is evidence of what happens when Black women and femme artists are allowed space to achieve self-definition through their work. It is time Black women and femmes become the creators and curators of our narratives.
Looking Up: Heroes For Today – An LVA Exhibit at Metro Hall featured Ashley Cathey as well as artists Brianna Harlan and Zed Saeed.
- Gen Doy. Black Visual Culture: Modernity and Postmodernity. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 111.
- Barbara Thompson, Ifi Amadiume, Hood Museum of Art, Davis Museum and Cultural Center, and San Diego Museum of Art. Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body. 1st ed. (Hanover, N.H.: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College in association with University of Washington Press, 2008), 151.
- Pamela Scully, and Clifton Crais. "Race and Erasure: Sara Baartman and Hendrik Cesars in Cape Town and London," Journal of British Studies 47, no. 2 (2008): 301.
- Scully, "Race and Erasure”, 301.
- Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2009), 107
- Clashworth, “Wangechi Mutu: Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors,” Off The Wall, August 10, 2017, https://pages.vassar.edu/fllaceducation/wangechi-mutu-histology-of-the-different-classes-of-uterine- tumors/
- Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, Heidi R Lewis, Roland Mitchell, Takiyah Nur Amin, Velva Boles, Claire Oberon Garcia, Jean Gumpper, et al, Beyond Mammy, Jezebel & Sapphire: Reclaiming Images of Black Women : Works from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation (Portland, Oregon: Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, 2016), 63
- bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. (New York: New Press, 1995.), 95.
Contributor to Ruckus
William Health, A Pair of Broad Bottoms, 1810 (British Museum), https://sites.temple.edu/femalebody/2019/03/25/william-heath-a-pair-of-broad-bottoms-1810/
Wangechi Mutu, " Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors: Adult Female Sexual Organs," 12 digital prints and mixed media collage, 2006, Margaret M. Bridwell Art Library, in Beyond Mammy, Jezebel, & Sapphire: Reclaiming Images of Black Women by Heidi R Lewis, Roland Mitchell, Takiyah Nur Amin, Velva Boles, Claire Oberon Garcia, Jean Gumpper, page 65-67, Portland, OR: Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, 2016.
Lorna Simpson, "The Waterbearer," Silver Print, 1986, Margaret M. Bridwell Art Library, in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics by bell hooks, page 95, New York, NY: New Press, 1995.
Visitor to Looking Up: Heroes For Today – An LVA Exhibit at Metro Hall viewing Cathey’s work
Ashley Cathey, Tytianna, 9”x12”. Acrylic and oil on canvas.