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Wellesley exhibit looks at the black woman's body

Talia Whyte | 9/17/2008, 4:59 a.m.
This Janus head vessel is part of “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons and Ideologies of the African Body,” a...
This postcard depicts a Mangbetu woman from a photograph taken in 1925 by Leon Poirer and Georges Specht during an African exhibition. Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College

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This Janus head vessel is part of “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons and Ideologies of the African Body,” a new exhibit at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center aimed at analyzing how perceptions of the black female body have evolved. (Photo courtesy of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College)

From the “Hottentot Venus” of the 19th century to the video vixens so prevalent in hip-hop music videos today, pop culture renderings of the black female form have been debated — and often decried — for years, by social critics and ordinary people alike.

A new exhibit that opened yesterday at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center aims to add to the discussion, offering in-depth analysis through art, photography, film and performances on the way perceptions of black women have evolved over the last 500 years.

Wellesley acquired the exhibit, “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons and Ideologies of the African Body,” from Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, in keeping with its mission to advance discussions about all women’s lives. Genevieve Hyacinthe, associate curator of African art at the Davis Museum, said she hopes the exhibit will expose visitors to a different kind of feminism.

“We are dedicated to art from a global perspective,” Hyacinthe said. “The exhibit will look at how black women around the world have been viewed … by Westerners from colonialism to contemporary times.”

“Black Womanhood” features pieces from some of the world’s most prominent black female artists. One of them is Maud Sulter, a photographer of African and Scottish descent, whose series of photos included in the exhibit features black women artists from literary, visual and performance arts costumed as muses relating to their individual artistic practices.

One of Sulter’s photographs being used in most advertisements for the exhibit features performance artist Della Street as Terpsichore, the muse of dance.

“Street as the model and Sulter as photographer are together inverting the position of the black woman, who in 18th century Europe would be relegated to the periphery of any painting or print,” Hyacinthe said. “Here, the black woman is center in a complicated dynamic of role reversal.”

The exhibit also features photographic self-portraits of Jamaican American artist Renée Cox, in which the New York-based artist casts herself as a number of icons of black womanhood, including the Hottentot Venus.

Hottentot Venus, whose real name was Saartjie Baartman, was an ethnic Khoikhoi South African woman who was put on display in sideshow attractions throughout Europe during the 1800s because she possessed physical features, including buttocks and labia, considered unusually large by Europeans at that time.

In the period following the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Baartman’s exhibition created a scandal among abolitionist groups. They believed that her treatment, which they likened to that of a caged animal in a zoo, was another form of slavery. After Baartman died in 1815, her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris until 1974, when they were removed from public view and stored out of sight.

“In her photo, Cox is dressed like the Hottentot Venus, wearing padding on her breasts and buttocks,” Hyacinthe said. “Cox’s emulation is a way to take back the Hottentot’s image in a positive light.”

Supplementing the exhibit, Wellesley will host a day-long symposium on black womanhood at the Davis Museum on Oct. 18, featuring a scholarly discussion of cultural identity, aesthetics, politics and religion. The day will conclude with performances by the South African performance and installation artist Dineo Bopape and Boston-based Afro Cuban performance artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons.

“I hope people will walk away from the exhibit knowing more about the complexities of black women’s bodies,” Hyacinthe said. “I hope people will walk away and see beauty.”

“Black Womanhood: Images, Icons and Ideologies of the African Body” is running from Sept. 17 through Dec. 14 at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center. For more information, visit www.davismuseum.wellesley.edu.