The Institution is Decadent and Depraved – Gonzo Journalism: The Studio is Ground-zero (Part I)

By Marcia X

                                                              Introduction

As most young, aspiring feminists of color do, I looked to Audre Lorde and bell hooks to
contextualize my life appropriately, since so many of us immediately feel a sense of
isolation or omission from popular mainstream feminist literature. In those pages I
learned within the feminist movement in the 60’s and 70’s, racism was prevalent. In
2014, it is still prevalent.

Adjusting curriculums to ensure accurate information to children of color and white
children on the various manifestations of white supremacy through out history and
culture is not what is to be discussed at length here, but I do ask: Why are art students
who are feminists silencing women of color in 2014? Am I naïve in thinking art studio
would be the last place I expected to experience a silencing of my feminist brown
voice?

There is a need for discussing the totality of our artistic and national histories as I will
prove in this essay with brief historical context of white feminist work and by
examining isolated relationships between artists and feminists who are of color and
white. This assessment will simultaneously explore studio practice and its relationship
with the political as the personal.

Part I

“I fear, I have integrated my people into a burning house.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

The first time I encountered the painting Portrait d’une Negresse by Marie G. Benoist, I
was researching contemporary events under the context of misogynoir in media. The
Spanish magazine Fuera de Serie published an issue with the face of First Lady
Michelle Obama imposed on the original painting by Benoist. Reactions flooded in as
expected with those in the black and brown communities making note of the racist
implications of the photoshopped image. During a term in my undergraduate studies, I
conducted a series of lectures on Black Art, Women’s Studies and Queer Theory. During
the first session, Black Art, I shared the image with my fellow students, I was
challenged by a white woman who identifies as a feminist. “I don’t think it’s racist at all. What makes that racist?”

magazine
Mrs. Obama’s ‘entry’ to the United States, like many African Americans, is as writer
James Baldwin said the product of a bill of sale. Although she is the premier Black
First Lady, her ancestors were Africans captured and sold into slavery within the
United States. To impose her face over the portrait of a black servant from the 19th
century, and have the American flag draped over the chair on which she sits implies
that Mrs. Obama and all African American women are still second class citizens within
their country of forced nationhood. The message the European magazine sent to their
European white audience was that progression of these women does not and will never
exist, and they are bodies deserving to be mistreated by the general populace. If Mrs.
Obama’s official White House bare arms portrait could cause a rukus amongst the
people in the US for being, how shall I say it….TACKY then surely this image would
have warranted outrage. It didn’t. EuroAmericans are desensitized to the Black female
body, a naked display on the block for serious economic gain. When the human being
has agency over her own body it is inappropriate, when it references the painting of a
slave in colonial times, then it is acceptable.

Historically, Portrait d’une Negresse is noted to be one of the first paintings with a
feminist message. Completed in 1800, when European women still had no access to
voting and other activities to which men had full privilege, Benoist took herself to task,
painting an image that would shake upper-class society. Since upper-class women were
allowed to paint, but only pretty feminine things, she challenged her male peers
willfully. Feminism was not a coined term yet, but this work was “feminist” in spirit
nonetheless. By painting a Black woman, Benoist provoked discussion as to what
subjects were proper and worthy of representation but also what was appropriate for a
white aristocratic woman to paint.

Like contemporary singer Lilly Allen, Benoist wanted to create a piece of work that
empowered herself whilst simultaneously challenging the status quo, and like Allen,
Benoist used the Black female body as allegory. These two artists are like many white
feminists, in that they see Black women not as individuals but as categories and
general archetypes which are created in the white imagination and used freely like a
stock image. White privilege and narcissism allowed these distinctly different women
and artists believe they can only reach affirmation of themselves through the degradation of Black women. White femininity and womanhood, which has been
discussed at length by writers and intellectuals, has been the definition of beauty and
idealism with Black womanhood as the antithesis. Self-empowerment of Black women
often offends and threatens their peers, because it contests what they subconsciously
believe to be true: black women and women of color will never be beautiful because
they are not white. It shatters their cultural ego. As Maria del Guadalupe Davidson
says these constructed archetypes and stereotypical images “render black female
existence entirely transparent to white society, thereby making it possible for white
men and women to claim full knowledge of the black female experience” (Davidson,
194) and erasing the very real aspects and narratives of our lives in this world.

Lilly Allen released a music video that was meant to satirize the male orientated
representation of all women in music and pop culture by having her mostly Black
dancers act and move sexually, wearing very provocative clothes and engaging in
sexual innuendos such as pouring champagne over their breasts, bending over cars
and dancing on their hands and knees. Allen’s music video, like Portrait d’une
Negresse, is much more about their creators and less about the general populace of
women. “…it is a typical colonialist picture in that the artist who created it made use of
the racialized Other to define and empower the colonizing Self. That is, the portrait
constitutes a visual record of white woman’s construction and affirmation of self
through the racial and cultural Other.” (Smalls, pg 2)

lily-allen-hard-out-here-twerking-video-still

The exposed breast of the nameless sitter could be said to represent freedom within its
Neoclassical context, yet it functions in a more degrading manner. Naked Black men
and women on auction blocks was standard practice when purchasing Black bodies.
Inspection of their teeth, muscles, and fondling their genitals was a part of the process
to ensure a good buy. Also, stripping the bodies of clothing, beatings, whippings and
public lynchings were all signs of white power, superiority and ownership. These acts
kept the Black populace in fear for their safety at all times, and these realities have
been passed down in the cultural consciousness of Blacks across the Diaspora.

It is not known what Benoist’s specific views were on black people, but due to the
naturalization of racist ideologies and white superiority of the time there is little doubt she was a firm believer in the hierarchy of classes and races. The woman in Benoist’s
portrait does not have agency over her life or her representation. She is more than
likely a servant in Benoist’s household. She does not appear to have been physically
scarred due to abuse but her facial expression reads psychological damage as an
immediate result of her life of servitude. This narrow line of thinking does not end with
the abolition of slavery. The portrait, like Allen’s Hard Out Here video, does not serve
as a feminist message of empowerment for all women. These acts of ‘art’ send the
wrong sort of message; feminism is for white middle to upper-class women who are
disenfranchised simply because of their gender.

White feminists safely assume their experience is the base experience for us all.
Whatever they say will be universal, and due to their refusal to acknowledge how a
history of class and race affects all women, they create a space within feminist
discourse that is ethnocentric, there by rendering the practice and theory of feminism
mute. Benoist’s Portrait d’une Negresse has not aged well in my eyes, and solidarity
amongst Black and White women will not happen easily, even in 2014. It is not that
Black women have a natural desire to separate themselves, instead, they are being told
their lives do not count and I am not reading between the lines, I am reading them as
written. “…feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class
movement…If class or race, and not merely gender, is what is preventing you from
becoming Director General of the BBC, or Prime Minister, or the editor of the
Telegraph, then equal rights for women in isolation of these factors are going to make
sod-all difference…” (www.thenewstatesman.com, 2012)

I ask, invoking the words of Sojourner Truth, ‘Ain’t I a woman?’

Marcia XMarcia X was born and raised in Chicago IL to immigrant parents in 1985. Inspired by her early travels to the Caribbean and US history and politics, she predominantly works in themes relating to the experience of the Diaspora, history, feminism, politics and socioeconomic issues. As a multidisciplinary artist, her mediums vary from print to installation, and currently is exploring minimalist abstract painting. She has her BA in Fine Art and is furthering her studies to attain an MA in Political, Social and International Theory. She lives and works in the Diaspora.

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About Black Feminists Manchester

This is a group for women who are ‘black’ in the political sense. I.e: women who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. Africa, Asia, Middle East and Latin America) multi heritage and indigenous backgrounds.
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