Speak on It: Black Women’s Sexuality and Art

Recently I have been thinking deeply about sexuality and the body and what it means to be a Black women living in Capitalist Amerikkka historically and into the present. Ive been thinking about how capitalism alienates us from our work and ourselves. Marx writes that labor should be the creative expression of ourselves and the development of our skills, but under commodity production it is this oppressive and exploitative process that we are forced into to survive. You can’t pay the bills, rent or eat if you don’t have a job giving you regular income to afford that. The fact that we are forced to work and do not have control or ownership over our work and what we produce results in us often being alienated from our work. In Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical manuscripts he characterizes the workers labor as an alien force that stands against her despite the fact that her labor is within the products she produces. He writes,

“Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.”

Of course he is writing about the labor process within the factory, where workers spend hours all day producing commodities for the capitalist, not for themselves. Even though they spend a significant amount of time making these things that embody their human labor they do not own them, and thus are alienated, and ultimately exploited by them. This is a useful analysis to apply to women and our own relationship to our bodies, as well as the ruling-class’s relationship to our bodies. Like the commodities produced by human labor, we do not own or have autonomy over our bodies, and thus have been alienated by them. Our bodies have been sites of pleasure for men and the ruling class and have been used to develop a patriarchal capitalist system that devalues us while maintaining male power within the class as well as the bourgeois state. I think of the origins of the Black experience in this country, where women were oppressed as slave workers and breeders; forced to reproduce and live in constant terror of rape by the master. These particular experiences were a product of the racist, sexist division of labor within the plantation that also had corresponding racist and sexist ideologies that characterized Black women has hyper-sexual and loose. These ideologies justified the horrors they were forced to endure, and are our legacy today when Black women are still raped, our bodies are still commodified, and we are still verbally assaulted by the words ‘hoe’ and ‘chicken head.’ I know I am talking about the Black experience, but I think women of color in general, who share similar origins of colonization, can relate to such experiences.

I am in the process of writing a more in-depth marxist feminist analysis of my thoughts on alienation and gender that I will post soon, but I wanted to share some things now as I start to think of resistance to alienation, sexism and racism in the form of artistic expression. I have spoken before that the mere fact that people find time to produce art and use their labor as a way of creatively expressing themselves in a world that systematically denies you that, is some form of resistance. When you use that art to make social commentary about this world…now we are getting into something more dangerous, and I like that!

One artist who continues to inspire me as a Black woman artist is Renee Cox. Described on her websites bio as “one of the most controversial African-American artists working today.” Her bold and beautiful photography often features herself, and addresses a range of issues from racism, sexism, religion and the eurocentric fine art world, all the while reclaiming empowering images and representations of Blackness. I fell in love with her when I first saw her photographs. The first piece, featured below, that I ever looked at was her photograph River Queen from her series Nanny of the Maroons (2004)

Since I was a little girl I have been obsessed with Harriet Tubman, and her drive to liberate herself and her people. Even at the age of 6 I was impressed by her military-like operation and strategy to not only free herself, but as many slaves as possible. When I learned about the Maroon societies of escaped slaves and the active role women have played in those struggles and communities I was even more proud of my ancestry, especially the women, and its commitment to freedom fighting. These principles are expressed in this photograph and the entire series that features Cox in similar attire, confidently holding a machete-like knife that exudes strength. I love this photograph, because it represents this strong, black, woman warrior determined to free her people. It represents all the reasons why I fell in love with Harriet Tubman 20 years ago.

The photograph featured at the top of this post is called Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from her series called Raje, which was a part of her first one woman show in NYC. She is featured throughout the series as this Black woman superhero, and in this particular photograph she is saving Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their incarceration within stereotypical, minstrel images that still continue to dominate in products and movies today. One image that has also stayed with me was her representation as Sarah Bartmann, aka Hott-En-Tot. Sarah Bartmann was a South African slave woman to the Dutch that was kidnapped by the colonizers and exhibited like an animal in Britain and other parts of the west. They made her undress and allowed people to examine her breast and behind. Cox is commentating on this type of colonization of the woman’s body that I get into above, and is obviously still an issue we face today. Cox’s pieces are very startling sometimes to the viewer and they are suppose to be that way; they should move you and make you think. Thinking isn’t encouraged too much in the society that we live in. Maybe that’s why her pieces are so controversial. One of her most controversial photographs was Yo Mama’s Last Supper. It was a remake of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which featured Cox nude in the middle posing as Jesus Christ. The catholic church was outraged, and Mayor Guiliani even tried to have it censored, because it was ‘indecent’. Cox’s response was right on stating, “i have a right to reinterpret the last supper as Leonard da Vinci created the last summer with people who look like him. The hoopla and the fury is because im a black female. It’s about me having nothing to hide.”

I love the boldness in the way she photographs herself and her body. I have always been weary of myself being a subject in my art or anyone else’s art, whether it be film, photography, paintings, ect.,. I have always preferred to stay behind the scenes, and film and paint other people. Therefore, I admire the fearlessness of Cox’s photographs and the way she puts herself in the forefront of her pieces. It is true…she really has nothing to hide and that is quite dangerous to the racist sexist ruling class. This is why I love her so much; and the fact that she is another Black woman visual artist. I do lots of art, but have always been inspired by visual art, especially photography and film. I went to film school, and loved it, but it is rough not having other Black women artists, especially filmmakers and photographers, around you to draw support and community from. Although I have never met Cox I feel strength just knowing she is out there producing creative, beautiful and powerful art that seeks to  challenge and empower. Please do yourself a favor and go to her website and check out her gallery. One of my favorite series is American Family. I love the way she photographs herself and expresses sexuality. Empowering, creative, and delicious. Another bold woman to celebrate!



One Comment on “Speak on It: Black Women’s Sexuality and Art”

  1. I read and enjoyed every bit of this article. My question is this: do you call the commodification of the female body in music videos and some genre of movies as the ‘selling of labour’? Is it art? If what was done to Sarah Bartman was shameful, why not this trend of the black female body seen only for its curves and smoothness and nothing else… ? what’s your take on this?

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