A Surprising Survey of African American Women's Art

That a survey like this is the first of its kind is indicative of the continued marginalization of women of color in the art world, which remains overwhelmingly white, male, and middle-class. Curated by Lisa Farrington, a senior faculty member in Parsons's Critical Studies department, "Creating Their Own Image" is loosely organized around four chronological themes: "Conceptualism," "Feminism and Black Power," "Abstract Expressions," and "Post-Black or Postmodern Pluralism." While many viewers may already be familiar with the works on view, the exhibition's real appeal lies in the opportunity to see them side by side, in juxtapositions that yield fresh, and sometimes surprising, comparisons. While similarly evoking social constructions of race, Kara Walker's infamous silhouette cutouts of antebellum blacks, for example, seem oddly didactic among the more nuanced work of her predecessors, particularly Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson. Still, in her sly appropriation of an Americana art form, Walker's incendiary use of nostalgia and stereotype packs a uniquely subversive wallop.

Renée Cox: Hot-en-tot (detail, 1994)
photo: Courtesy Parsons School of Design
Renée Cox: Hot-en-tot (detail, 1994)

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Creating Their Own Image: A History of African-American Women Artists
Parsons School of Design
66 Fifth Avenue
Through January 30

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One of the most powerful images in the exhibition is Renée Cox's photographic self-portrait Hot-en-tot. Based on the image of a 19th-century Khoisan woman, Saartjie Baartman, who was exhibited in Europe as a physiognomic "curiosity," it features a nude Cox wearing oversize prosthetic breasts and buttocks. Suggesting that, as the cultural repository of sexual aberrance, the African American female remains "caged" in her body, Cox simulta-neously refuses this proscription and boldly confronts our gaze. The show's only real flaw is the crowding of certain works, notably Chakia Booker's lushly expressive tire sculptures, which are hemmed into corners. Nonetheless, such a visual throng aptly mirrors the inclusive spirit that inspired this exhibition.

 
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