The female nude has been a staple subject in art for millennia. From the Woman of Willendorf to Edouard Manet’s Olympia, and through the present day, the female nude has been used to portray beauty ideals, social and political ideologies, and has been an object on which the male gaze can rest. In art, however, the focus has historically been on white women, and, with the possible exception of work from the Harlem Renaissance, nude women of color are represented as sexual exotic others. This approach to the black nude reflects the image of black women perpetuated by art and the media throughout recent history, an image that still lingers today. Through the twentieth century, and today, artists, especially women artists like Renée Cox, are dismantling this perception through their work, challenging history and reinterpreting the black female nude.
The beginnings of the Modern representation of the black female nude in the media and in art, were in the pseudo-anthropological and ethnographic exhibits and photography of the nineteenth century. During the height of European colonialism on the African continent, the fascination with “native peoples” grew to such an extent that black Africans were being put on display at world fairs and in sideshows. One such person was Saartjie Baartman, a slave from modern-day South Africa, who was taken to England from her home in 1810 to be put on display as an anthropological wonder. Baartman had steatopygia, a trait common to women native to the region, characterized by extremely protuberant buttocks. (Osha, 80) She (and several other women from the same region) was called the “Hottentot Venus” in the outrageously successful sideshows in which she was displayed. While certainly not the first instance of Europe’s public fascination with the African female form, it was one of the most extreme. The notion of “otherness” associated with Baartman made it acceptable for onlookers to jab her nude body with umbrellas and for her “business managers” to repeatedly take advantage of her. Baartman’s display and the fascination with her body set a precedent for at least the rest of the nineteenth century.
In The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, Deborah Willis and Carla Williams present photographs of women and children taken in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. These pictures are sexual, and sometimes pornographic, in nature: women posed as courtesan prostitutes, a young pre-pubescent girl posing nude on a couch, her hand awkwardly and shyly tucked under her chin. (Farrington, 41) These photographs demonstrate the conflict between the sexuality of the models and the image of hyper-sexuality imposed on them by white photographers and viewers. This conflict is just one manifestation of the double bind of the black female body; not only are these models looked upon as women, but also as an “exotic other”, which further dehumanizes and objectifies them. The hypersexualization and framing of the black woman as exotic that occurred in the nineteenth century still has repercussions today. Since the early twentieth century many artists and activists have been trying to expel this image and reposition the image of black women in art and in society, reinventing, repositioning the African nude within history and culture. One artist whose work focuses on this repositioning of the black woman in art is Renée Cox, whose photographs especially focus on a personal reshaping of the image of the black female nude.
Cox’s Baby Black is a visual play on Ingre’s famous Large Odalisque from 1814. Cox is photographed laying on a chaise lounge, her back turned to us, just like Ingre’s painting. However, in Baby Black, Cox’s face is turned away from us so that was can only see her profile. This stance evokes a sense of resilience from Cox; she is denying us her attention and to an extent, her identity. It is reminiscent of another work of art, this time a feminist photo-collage by Barbara Kruger which states, “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face”. Again, we’re reminded of the historical double bind of the black female nude: that she is the object of the male gaze, and the object of the white gaze. She is not welcoming this gaze; instead, by looking away, she denies the gazer any sort ownership of her body. Unlike the Odalisque, Cox’s photograph shows a realistic body. It is not exaggerated or idealized like Ingre’s painting is, but it also shows that Cox is not the Hottentot Venus, and she is not the body stereotype perpetuated by art and the media. She inserts herself into art history, where African nudes have been mostly neglected. The image still shows that there is much to be done in the area of reconciliation of the black nude: the Odalisque herself was painted as a woman to be looked upon and as an exotic “Oriental” other who was displayed for the sexual pleasure of men, and by placing herself in this role, Cox still comments on her assumed role in the art world and in the media (1993 was the hey-day of the African-American fashion model in magazines).
In Yo Mama: the Sequel, Cox explores a more personal facet of her identity as a woman of African descent. She is photographed with her two children, one of whom she is holding horizontally. Her other child crouches next to her, with his arms wrapped around Cox’s leg. Unlike the photograph that precedes this one (Yo Mama, 1991), Cox does not wear high heels, but instead stands barefoot, just as solidly as ever. She and her eldest son both wear matching anklets, a symbol that visually ties her to her offspring. In this photograph she is not portrayed as a sexualized “other”, but foremost as a mother. The image gives us a peek into a facet of a human life; Cox is presented as subject, not object. This gives the image of the nude dimension, character and, most importantly, an identity. The autonomy denied so long to nudes, and especially to black nudes is granted to—demanded by!—Cox. She documents her identity with her gender, social roles, race, and the inter-racial identity of her children. Rather than documenting art history and the history of black women, she documents a moment in her life.
Renée Cox uses historical context and the context of her own life experiences to reshape the traditional representation of the black nude in art. With the reinvention of this imagery within the context of fine art, comes a reorientation of the image of black women in general; and though this has been a process one hundred years in the making, Cox’s contributions spanning from the 1980s through the 2000s, it is a work still in progress. With more public education on this subject in the areas of both history and art, the ends Cox and her peers strive to reach may be closer than ever.
Farrington, Lisa E. “The Black Female Body: A Photographic History by Deborah Willis; Carla Williams.” Women’s Art Journal. 24.1 (2003): 40-42.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Censoring the Body. Oxford: Seagull Books, 2007. Print.
Osha, Sanya. “”Venus” and White Desire.” Transition. 99 (2008): 80-99.