An Appropriate Anthem
The Hood's "Black Womanhood" exhibit is largely my fault. Well, not mine personally. More so than it does for black women, the exhibit tells the story of white men. The collection is an interpretation -- a historical record, really -- of the way white men like myself have defined women's sexuality and reduced "black womanhood" to a series of sexual icons.
As one enters the exhibit, he or she is immediately struck by this theme, encapsulated in a modern, black version of the 1814 Orientalist painting "La Grande Odalisque" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Reclining nude in the same position as the sex slave in the original composition, Renee Cox uses her "Baby Back" to connect the commodification of erotically exotic women with the perception of uninhibited sexuality thrust upon them. Unlike the original concubine with her famously disproportional and sensuous features, however, Cox shows herself photo-realistically and free of artificial impositions.
At the other end of the exhibit Cox reinterprets another image, this time of the real Saartjie Baartman. Baartman notably suffered from the condition steatopygia, which caused her to have unusually large buttocks. An orphaned slave in South Africa, she attracted the attention of local farmers who sent her to Britain to be exhibited. Billed as the "Hottentot Venus," Baartman stood on display at Piccadilly Circus and around Europe for people to marvel at her unusual features, which were said to be typical of her people. The scientific community theorized that her large buttocks and elongated labia denoted the increased sexual nature of African women and identified her as a missing link or primitive ancestor on the evolutionary path to (white) humans.
In her photograph "Hot-en-Tot," Cox revisits this image by posing nude with oversized prosthetic breasts and buttocks. While her new image portrays the African beauty ideals as evidenced through tribal art, it also evokes the old racist anthropometric diagrams that 'proved' the inherent inferiority of blacks.
To prove that these images continue to fascinate us today, the exhibition curator, Barbara Thompson, used her opening lecture to note the 2003 National Geographic edition titled "Exotic Women from Around the World: Our First Swimsuit Edition." The magazine's staff justified the edition because, let's face it, National Geographic is where adolescent boys first see naked women. At the heart of the edition's success was the increased sexual appeal that the magazine's consumers have for exotic and foreign women. Even in the context of a more scientific publication, we cannot help but sexualize these women.
The campus outrage towards the "Hip Hop in the Hood" party, however, is not my fault, but it is deeply related. Many have pointed out, quite correctly, that hip hop music often degrades women and would not be an appropriate soundtrack for an exhibit about the true identity of black women. However, that is not what this exhibit is about. The collection is about stereotypes, histories and icons that have repressed black womanhood and the revisionism of artists to confront it.
In fact, I can think of no better anthem for the entire exhibit than the most prevalent art form advancing sexism and commodification of women: hip hop. The party music was merely an auditory extension of the exhibit itself. Some have complained that they could not hear the audio-visual elements in the exhibit because of the noise, but the stories of these women can be understood in the same beats and harsh lyrics that thunder through parties all across campus.
So often we react most profoundly when critiques hit too close to home, which might explain the root cause of much of the anger presently directed towards the Hood and specifically towards the individuals who chose the music for the party. The emotions I felt as a representative of the white male 'perpetrators' who created the base icons and stereotypes revisited in the gallery are just the start. For those railing against the Hood, the superimposition of hip hop onto the exhibition has led them to the realization that the forces now repressing black womanhood are coming from within the black community itself. In hyper-sexualizing black women, these predominantly black hip hop and rap artists are doing exactly the same thing that the whites did to the Hottentot Venus. Confronting this reality may be painful and arouse emotions, but it is necessary. If the controversy surrounding the Hood party can inspire greater dialogue on this topic, then its mission was fulfilled.