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More than Representation: Black Women Artists as Change Agents

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By Tiffany LaTrice, Executive Director- TILA Studios
Recently, TILA Studios hosted a reading room with Spelman College Museum of Fine Art at the AUC Woodruff Library to facilitate a discussion on Deborah Willis’ book, Posing Beauty. The dialogue was focused on unpacking the power of images as the book explores the ways in which African American and African beauty have been represented in historical and contemporary contexts through a diverse range of mediums such as photography, film, video, art and fashion. Wills categorizes her book into three thematic sections: Constructing a Pose, Body and Image, and Modeling Beauty and Beauty Contests. One of the first questions that I posed to the audience was “When were you first introduced to the word beauty.” A simple but telling question as the responses alluded that beauty was never something that was self-constructed, or a term used in their respective households but imposed by others.

Photo Credit: Posing Beauty
Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present: Deborah Willis:

Before delving deeper into the conversation, we first took about five to ten minutes to browse through Zenele Mulholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness monograph which serves as a personal documentation and archive of more than 70 photographs that confronts the politics of race and representation. Zanele seeks to dissect the complexity of beauty, pride and desire. One of the most prolific exhibitions, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is championing and challenging what representation looks in museums. As the only museum in the nation to solely exhibit black women artists, the institution acts as a space where identity politics can be discussed.  The simple fact that Zanele produced this work, used herself as the subject, served as the photographer, she reclaims her space that is not voyeuristic but instead vulnerable. It was beautiful to see that Zanele was able to spark a dialogue about beauty simply because her work exists for us to explore. It got me thinking about the power of images and the places in which we see ourselves.
Whenever you find yourself at an art exhibit or at a museum, ask yourself what stories the images, sculptures, or paintings are telling you about the world in which we live. If the story is one-dimensional, don’t be afraid to ask yourself, what is missing. Diverse representation is imperative, and I believe that black women artists are the ones at the forefront of challenging western notions of beauty and history.
I would like to leave you with five reasons why representation matters:

  1. Photo Credit: Zanele
    Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

    When everyone has characters or images they can relate to or empathize with it allows us to foster a deeper understanding of ourselves.
  2. It helps us to embrace our culture because erasure is real, and history has more often than not left us out of the narrative.
  3. When art confronts the issues of gender, race, sexuality and body politics, we are able to feel seen and heard.
  4. It’s realistic. Let’s be honest, the world does not look like a Victoria Secrets model. So, it’s more realistic and honest when we see people who embody us.
  5. It’s important for everyone to see themselves because it teaches self-love, it fosters empathy and understanding which in turns foster changes.

For those of you that haven’t visited Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Zanele’s exhibition is on view until December 8. The museum is open Mondays – Fridays, 10 – 4 p.m. and Saturdays, 12 – 4 p.m.


Featured photo top: Credit Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

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