Currently on display at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities displays over 75 works that examine the social implications of race, gender, and disguise. The exhibition presents different ways and reasons people manipulate their appearance. The curators, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and Karen Comer Lowe, assembled a list of artists with recognizable names—Cindy Sherman and Lorna Simpson, among others—and also artists perhaps less familiar such as Nandipha Mntambo, Berni Searle and Magdalene Odundo. Atlanta-based artists, including Sheila Pree Bright and Sheila Turner, also make appearances. The artworks are grouped around three themes: disguise, fragment, and adornment. Ultimately, however, these categories are arbitrary because most works fall into all three.
Despite the exhibition’s categorization problem, some of the individual works piqued my interest. One of those is the startling and slightly frightening image of Nandipha Mntambo disguised as Zeus in the photograph Europa (2008). Mntambo was born in Swaziland, and her aesthetic revolves around the use of cowhide. Although the exhibition also includes photographs of Mntambo wrapping cowhide around her body and a video performance in which she plays a matador, Europa is the most successful of these works.
Europa is a beautiful Phoenician woman from Greek mythology whom Zeus ravishes after disguising himself as a bull. Instead of camouflaging herself as Europa, Mntambo plays on the audience’s gender expectations by taking on the aggressive masculine persona of Zeus. Other works in the exhibit address gender expectations as well, such as photo stills from Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle Bouregeoise Noire (1980-1983). In this performance piece, O’Grady adopted the persona of a beauty queen to challenge the segregation of the New York art scene.
Another hot topic throughout the exhibition is the cultural significance of hair and how it relates to black female identity. Lorna Simpson’s Wigs II (1994-2006) deals exclusively with the identity of African-American females and how they conform or challenge society’s standards of beauty. The work consists of 54 lithographs mixed with 19 text panels meant to engage and perhaps challenge viewers in a dialogue about what they perceive as beautiful. Other works dealing with similar issues are Mequitta Ahuja’s large chalk on paper drawings entitled Tress 1 (2008) and Tress IV (2009). Her drawings are self-portraits with her head titled back, making her hair seem larger than life. This young American artist with both African and East Indian heritage shows her craftsmanship by creating interesting, rich textures with chalk. Hair can be an obsession and the focus of a love/hate relationship, so it often takes on a larger-than-life persona in the psyche as well as in “reality”.
Other works create a dialogue about the colonial era, including Renée Cox’s famous Hot-En-Tot (1994). This photograph refers to Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who was taken to Europe in the nineteenth century and displayed for her pronounced physical features. In Hot-En-Tot, Cox poses as the so-called “Hottentot Venus” with prostheses visibly adhered to her body. The photograph speaks to the way Africans, especially women, were treated as exotic oddities in the colonial era. South African artist Berni Searle also deals with the effects of colonialism, and of apartheid, in Profiles (2002). This photographic installation presents eight semi-transparent prints of the artist’s face. She pressed objects into her skin to create various patterns, including a Christian cross, a British imperial crown, an apartheid-era shield, and Dutch cloves (part of the spice trade that led to the Dutch colonization of the Cape of Good Hope). Searle herself is of African and German-English descent, but she was categorized as “colored” in the apartheid era. Cox and Searle’s works examine struggles that began during colonialism and continue to affect Africans and African-Americans today.
Although the way Undercover is organized seems somewhat arbitrary, the art itself is worth a trip to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. It presents a compelling look at the beauty, and also the struggles, of black females throughout history.
This exhibition is part of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, and it is on view through December 5. Various events throughout its run include an artist lecture with Renée Cox on October 22 at 7PM and a gallery walk with bell hooks, noted African-American scholar, on November 4 at 4PM.