“Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities.”
Through Dec. 5. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. Spelman College Museum of Art. 350 Spelman Lane. 404-270-5607. www.spelmanmuseum.org.
Bottom line: Once again, an exemplary exhibition at Spelman.
By Catherine Fox
Childhood is littered with bromides about valuing a person’s good heart or soul, but most of us figure out early on that inner beauty only goes so far.
We know that the way we present ourselves — our clothes, our hair, our manners — signal who we are, or who we want to be. We know that appearance matters in gaining love, respect and acceptance. And we know that we are also judged by aspects that are beyond our control: the color of our skin, say, or our gender.
These facts of life are the starting point for “Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities,” a terrific show at Spelman College Museum of Art.
As curated by museum director Andrea Barnwell and Atlantan Karen Comer Lowe, ideas bounce and ricochet off one another with the energy of a handball game. And, appropriately for the theme, the pieces, which range from pottery to video, look awfully good — individually and together.
There’s a whole lot of signifying, role-playing manipulating and provocating (my word) going on. At one end of the spectrum, for example, is Gordon Parks’ 1963 photo of Ethel Shariff, then leader of the women’s corps of the Black Muslims, whose nun-like garb announces purity and discipline. At the other are videos by Kalup Linzey, the female impersonator/ performance artist, who does the diva with convincing wit.
Not surprisingly, ideals of beauty and their tyranny are recurring themes. Atlanta photographer Sheila Pree Bright merges self-portrait with black Barbies in her “Plastic Bodies” series. Hair— a fraught subject for most women, rendered more so by racism — gets the treatment in outstanding works by Ellen Gallagher, Lorna Simpson and Mequitta Ahuja.
Racism and the dehumanizing “male gaze” (the idea that women are no more than the sum of their body parts) are a one-two punch in “Hot-En Tot,” a photo by Renee Cox. She photographs herself nude wearing exaggerated prosthetic breasts and bottom in an allusion to the humiliating treatment of the African woman known as “The Hotentot Venus,” who was exhibited nude in sideshows in 19th-century Europe.
On the adjacent wall, Lalla Essaydi’s photographs suggest that covering up women comes from the same dehumanizing attitude. The Moroccan artist rebels against her Muslim upbringing in these tableaux. She presents women who are shrouded almost to the point of disappearance under a layer of cloth but gives them a symbolic voice by covering the cloths and the surrounding walls with script.
Nandipha Mntambo’s photograph “Europa” is as smart as it is arresting. In Greek myth, Zeus assumes the form of a bull to rape the maiden Europa. It’s an oft-painted story in Western art, another opportunity to depict a sensuous nude submitting to masculine strength.
In this gender-bending, table-turning image, the South African artist assumes the form of the bull and stares menacingly at the viewer. I want her on my team to take back the night.