“When some people heard about the show and the subject matter, they were a little put off,” admits Lorraine Tipaldi, visual-arts curator at the YMI Cultural Center.
Other people weren’t offended by the center’s latest art exhibit — until they actually saw the work, that is. Painter Beverly McIver’s interracial-love portrait with watermelon, for instance, didn’t thrill some viewers.
“I think any reaction is a good reaction,” Tipaldi maintains, “because [the work has] caused people to feel something.”
Looking Forward, Looking Black: 100 Years of Race, Identity and Stereotype isn’t intended to alienate anyone. That said, the exhibit is just as much about confronting the many manifestations of the African-American form as it is embracing them.
Three years ago, Jo Anna Isaak, a professor of art history at New York’s Hobart William Smith College, curated a collection of works by a group of highly visible black artists, including McIver, Emma Amos, Michael Ray Charles, Renee Cox, Leslie Dill, Glen Ligon, Alison Saar and Kara Walker. The traveling exhibit had reached its last stop at the Dayton (Ohio) Art Institute when Tipaldi found it and arranged for one more showing — at YMI in downtown Asheville.
“The black body has been everywhere in evidence,” explains Isaak, “in painting, film, photography — even [on] cookie jars and [as] lawn ornaments — and at the same time rendered invisible. In the process of re-seeing what was intended to go unnoticed, these artists are engaged in undoing a whole system of denial and, at the same time, reconstructing and reclaiming images of selfhood on their own terms.”
But Tipaldi credits McIver, who spoke at the YMI exhibit’s opening reception, with helping reluctant viewers open up to the work. A former professional clown, McIver initially painted on a white face and covered her hair with a blond wig. Later, she took to wearing blackface and an Afro wig like the African-American blackface minstrels of a century ago. According to YMI’s notes on the subject, there were two kinds of blackface performers: white actors who darkened their faces with burnt cork and mimicked black stereotypes (the urban dandy or the plantation slave), and African-Americans, who, in a complicated role reversal, darkened their own faces further to portray whites impersonating blacks.
When McIver began painting, she chose to represent herself in her blackface garb as a means of examining racial implications.
“[McIver] works in bodies of work,” notes Tipaldi. “She works in themes. Her series ‘Loving in Black and White’ came from her time living in Arizona, where there weren’t many black people around her, and she realized that if she was interested in being in a relationship, she might end up dating a white person. So, she worked through that on canvas.”
Many viewers balked at McIver’s image of herself in painted face and unruly wig, and lying in the arms of a Caucasian lover. Behind the couple, a bright-red slice of watermelon teeters precariously on a shelf, goading that classic, unsavory stereotype.
But don’t jump to conclusions too fast, Tipaldi cautions.
“There’s at least half a dozen meanings in any piece of art,” she points out. “Often, the art brings up issues in the viewer’s life. ‘Loving in Black and White’ made many people uncomfortable until they heard McIver talk about her process for creating those images.”
Of course, art isn’t just for the audience that sees it.
“A lot of these artists work out personal feelings and ideas through [their] artwork,” Tipaldi observes. “It’s almost like therapy. There’s also a humorous side — humor helps you get through things.”
Photographer Renee Cox’s “The Liberation of Lady J and U.B.” is rife with wit. Lady J is Aunt Jemima and U.B. is Uncle Ben, the two plantation-era relics whose faces still grace eponymous name brands of rice and pancake mix.
In Cox’s larger-than-life work, svelte, sexy black superhero-types burst forth from the offending product packaging. The modern Lady J sports a skimpy bathing suit, spiked heels and glittering talons, while U.B. — in boxing shorts and Doc Martens — looks like he’s just put in his time at the gym.
“By day they’re Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, but by night … watch out!” Tipaldi laughs.
But not all of Cox’s work is fun and games. Her “Hott-en-tot Venus,” a silver gelatin print, is perhaps the exhibit’s most striking image. The uncanny self-portrait shows Cox glaring at the camera wearing only oversized metal breasts and buttocks held on with delicate white laces.
“People had a hard time with that picture, mainly because it’s a photograph, which is reality even if it’s not actually reality,” Tipaldi explains.
The photo arose from the story of Saartje Baartman, a member of the Khoi Khoi people (called Hottentots by Dutch colonials) who was taken from Cape Town, South Africa, in 1810 by an English surgeon fascinated by her physical features — namely her decidedly un-European derriere.
Baartman was displayed nude throughout England and France; after her death, her body was plaster-casted and then dissected in search of the essence of black female sexuality.
“There are several books and films people can go to in order to understand this work,” Tipaldi offers.
YMI will be showing films — one on the life of the Hottentot Venus — on Tuesday evenings in January.
“All races,” Tipaldi continues, “have been victimized in one way or another — the black race especially.”
But the cast of victim is largely absent here; the YMI exhibit tends to mold the black body in shapelier forms. The eight featured artists spread their interpretations across physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries, amassing a weighty presence indeed.