Notes on blackness and femininities
- Published: 13 November 2010
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Black feminists continuously challenge how women artists are perceived, and more broadly about how we can think more critically about blackness within visual culture, writes Leonine Claire.
14 November 2010
A lot has been written about the stereotyping of black fictional characters and real black persons as subjects/objects in the fine arts, on television, and in film and mainstream media.
Much of this writing involves strong criticisms of racist caricatures, of objectification, of variations of the Angry Black Woman and the Scary Black Man, and of the devaluation of black cultures.
These criticisms recognise that there exists an inability to recognise someone who is black as a full person with valid feelings, thoughts and experiences, and that blackness can sometimes be made to epitomise what is abject, a spectacle or grotesque.
It can be productive to focus on the visual elements of blackness in ‘high arts’, popular culture and media.
The study of visual culture enables the problematising and questioning of how we see and engage with images from these arenas. Although images and text cannot be separated much of the time, it can be useful to try to understand the visual on its own terms.
The visual and how we receive and consume imagery is informed by systems such as racism, sexism, ablism, fatphobia, capitalism, transphobia, rampant transmisogyny and cissexism, heterosexism and any others which are oppressive.
The visual can also enable many of us to resist these systems, and to create our own aesthetics.
These aesthetics could demand that what is attractive and what warrants attention exceeds and decentres the ideals of whiteness, able-bodiedness, thinness, of looking neat and well adorned.
It could also challenge the ideal that one’s sex/gender has to be identifiable within the gender binary. Or it could strongly resist the idea that a person’s felt femininity or masculinity is unreal.
Black aesthetics have a long and sometimes troubled history. It runs the gamut from colourism, to living the idea that Black is Beautiful such that black pride involves embracing our ‘natural’ beauty, to pan-African thought, to exploring Afrocentrism and rejecting Eurocentrism, and a whole lot more. Among black folks, the roundness of some black women’s bodies can be revered.
While all of these movements and ideas and concepts are important, I want more. I want an aesthetics animated through black feminism.
Black women have been powerful agents when it comes to producing images of us and our sisters.
A black feminist aesthetics can provide an inroad into understanding how women and black people are denigrated according to how we look and how we move around in the world. It is not just about what our bodies look like, but what they can and cannot do.
Currently I am working on a research proposal under the broad topic of contemporary African diasporic and African art. The artists are all black women and their chosen works feature the artists as subjects.
As a black westerner of African descent, I have developed a black consciousness in the home, alongside other black folks, and through reading mainly black American theory.
Being keenly aware of how ineffective it is to lazily apply black American theory to understanding black racism outside of the US, I avoided black American art theory (most of my chosen artists do not live in the US) which dominates research on African diasporic art.
Until I picked up sections of bell hooks’s Art on My Mind (1995). The book’s accessible theorising, personal narratives and interviews with artists whom are black and female such as Carrie Mae Weems sparked a series of questions which are still relevant today.
1) Why is there a lack of serious and mainstream art criticism on art created by artists who are black?
2) Why do art viewers/consumers expect work by black female artists to be full of anger or to always reference race?
These questions referred to the reception of art created by black artists. Moreover hooks examined the following questions related to artistic practice:
3) Why are women artists who are committed to their art work and who demand solitude perceived as weird?
4) And finally: Why are the literary arts, visual arts and so on not perceived as real work (especially when produced by marginalised genders)?
From reading these sections, I was reminded why bell hooks was my original theoretical love and how she has changed my life.
As someone who can struggle to create art, coming across theory that can weave together experience, antiracist thinking and the push for black women especially to enter arenas where they may not be the most welcome, is truly inspiring.
What might seem obvious to most or taken for granted by particular groups is carefully articulated; moreover the text is energised through hooks’s particular form of action-oriented hopefulness.
hooks is from the South of the US, is African American and has lived in the same country her whole life; I have given you some descriptors and I am from Sydney mostly and London.
Without getting all essentialist about it—there are definite connections that people with strong black consciousnesses can identify with – and these connections are all the more important between black women.
hooks is best at excavating these connections. Until I read hooks, I had unexamined ideas about what I perceived to be ‘natural’ and therefore not really worth thinking about (such as movement and black women’s bodies) and worthy of academic framing (although I do not believe that academia should be the barometer of worthiness by a long shot).
Janell Hobson’s Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2005) specifically focuses on black women’s bodies, (examples include Sara Baartman, Grace Jones and Josephine Baker), in her search for a black feminist aesthetics.
During this search Hobson utilises and coheres research from black dance theorists, literary theorists, and performance and other visual artists.
In one example, Hobson critiques seemingly innocuous commentary on black women’s bodies and dancing.
Batty dancing and how black women move from our hips, and how black girls move in cultural dances have generally been perceived as grossly overtly sexual or purely for the male gaze.
These assumptions disregard that black movement can be about a girl or woman being free, present and in the moment.
Hobson’s book made me realise that the historical shaming and denigration of batty dancing was not just racist and sexist; it was also classist.
The dancing was perceived as disgusting because it was performed by and originated from working class black people in the dance halls. This history has fed into current racist conceptions of the black female body and movement.
When black bourgeois folk appropriate African diasporic dancing or create derivative versions through particular forms of popular culture such as music videos, white folks (some of whom are adept at analysing class) also find them threatening.
These white folks also lack the critical thinking around how classism factors into their own criticisms because they see ‘rich’ black folks doing it.
Thus these same folks can unblinkingly criticise rappers’ misogyny not realising that the appropriated dancing has some form of origin which is class-oriented and culturally significant.
Moreover, these same people also find black women’s actual bodies threatening. Our bodies are synonymous with hypersexuality and lasciviousness—especially when the female body is nude or near naked in all its glory or clothed and free.
How black women think and experience our bodies is important. And hooks and Hobson bring out the tensions in which black women experience the degradation of our bodies and our selves every single damn day alongside empowered imagery concerning black femininities in art and popular culture.
To create art which features black women—whether through our bodies or on canvases or with the camera (and artists who are black have the choice), we have to believe that there are parts of blackness which are wholly beautiful.
Much of the denigration is based on the visual and the uncritical thinking from those who cannot see beauty in blackness.
But for those of us who are black women, we have to feel free to live our lives. And the critical thinking associated with hooks and Hobson can help us on our journey toward this freedom.
Leonine Claire writes and blogs at leonine anti-heroine, and enjoys post-student life.