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African bodies of evidence

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by Cate McQuaid
Boston Herald

In 1810, an English ship’s surgeon brought Saartjie Baartman, a young South African woman, to London. She was displayed on stage and made to squat to show her genitals. After she died in 1816, her brain, skeleton, and genitals went on exhibition in Paris, where they remained until 1974.

Baartman, dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” was a victim of colonialism at its most vulgar. She plays a generative role in “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body,” a sweeping, gutsy, and provocative exhibition organized by curator Barbara Thompson at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.

“Black Womanhood” draws a powerful portrait, vivid with pride and celebration, degradation, anger, and reclamation. Themes of maternity, sexuality, beauty, and women’s social roles cycle throughout.

The show, which travels to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in September, grapples with representations of the black female body through history. Over the centuries, African women have been stolen, owned, mocked, and desired by Americans and Europeans. Sex, power, and powerlessness charge images of the black female figure, particularly the nude.

Contemporary artists from Africa and the African diaspora struggle to deconstruct the freighted meanings that lurk within such pictures. In recent years, exhibitions have spotlighted the work of contemporary African women artists, who are still an emerging group, but Thompson digs much deeper.

She places present-day art by men and women alongside traditional African art, making breathtaking links across centuries. She crosses the colonial divide with a hair-raising display of early-20th-century postcards depicting African women – the souvenirs American and European tourists sent home.

Partial nudity was common in 19th-century Africa, but imagine the reaction of Victorian-era Europeans landing there, greeted by bare-skinned natives. They deemed Africans primitive and erotic, applied anthropometry – the measuring of body parts – to attempt to understand them, and sent postcards home, many with photos and captions intended to titillate and reinforce presumptions of white racial superiority.

In traditional African art, evocations of women represented the feminine in its divine and creative aspects. A carving of a woman holding her breasts, such as one by the Temne peoples in Sierra Leone, was a symbol of obeisance to the gods. In the West, we’d likely read it salaciously, as a sexual invitation.

Traditionally, men made figurative art in Africa; women worked with ceramics and textiles. Many masks here were made and worn by men in rituals that evoked the power of the feminine, such as the 19th-century Yoruban cap mask, or gelede, on view here. It topped a full costume, with caricatured breasts and bottom.

Sokari Douglas Camp, a Nigerian artist, re-creates the gelede headdress in “Gelede from Top to Toe.” With bulbous eyes, an enormous rear, and missile-like breasts, the piece adds another level of exaggeration and satire to a tradition already loaded with them. White South African photographer Penny Siopis takes an African breastplate, much like the 19th-century Tanzanian one here swollen with a pregnant belly, and holds it over her own torso in “Mask and Myself.” Setting the African relic against her white skin, Siopis raises questions about her own African identity.

Maud Sulter and Renee Cox tackle Western art history. Sulter’s “Terpsichore,” one of a series of photographs depicting prominent black women as muses, has performance artist Della Street wearing an aristocratic wig and gown, in a pose typical of 17th- and 18th-century portraits of wealthy women, often accompanied by African pages. Here, Street personifies both. She holds a bauble, denoting trade and the dark economic history that filled many a European aristocrat’s coffers. Her eyes meet the viewer’s in quiet accusation.

The reclining nude, a perennial in European art history, has beckoned erotically to viewers at least since the 16th century. By the 19th century, such works often included a black servant hovering in the background; look at Manet’s “Olympia.” Cox tartly upends that scenario, conflating the nude and the servant in her own flesh, lounging in red pumps against a sumptuous gold day bed.

In her collage “Double Fuse,” the Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu exaggerates the African female form, playing on the fears and desires historically projected onto it. Building bold twin figures out of images cut from wildlife, fashion, and car magazines, Mutu creates women who are part superhero, part monster.

“Black Womanhood” aches with old wounds, probed tenderly by artists who still contend with these scars and restrictions. It has a mighty scope, embracing topics such as the spice trade, Josephine Baker, African initiation rituals, and homophobia in South Africa.

The paradigm it sets up – between black and white, woman and man, colonized and colonizers – is one we’re all trying to dig our way out of. It’s easy, and perhaps even necessary, to paint the oppressed in a gauzy, heroic light so they can shed the projections of others and reclaim their own identities.

But I found myself wondering, as I wandered through the traditional African masks, pots, and costumes, reading wall text that emphasized the complementarity of male and female roles among various African peoples, was it really so noble and perfect? Was no one oppressed? What about practices such as female genital mutilation, enacted by African women upon African girls? It may be too much to ask this already ambitious show to examine yet another topic fraught with conflicted meaning, but it certainly adds another layer to the already rich iconography of black womanhood.

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