Centering the Black Woman

A common refrain in current activism is “Listen to Black Women”. When the latest traumatic news cycle starts, a chorus of commentators and thinkers invariably chime in, trying to either explain or deny or commodify the moment we find ourselves in. A pervasive response? Listen to black women. This moment is a deep and long overdue reckoning that will take years to unfold - it has of course been building for hundreds of years and is so nuanced so as to require a continual deep engagement etc. But for guidance - what do we listen to? And how?

“Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today” is an examination of the presentation of Black women and a greater exploration of the Black Woman grounded in the well-traversed land of early modern Paris, and in early 1900’s Harlem. Housed in Columbia’s new Wallach Gallery, the exhibit is theoretically grounded in its exploration of modernism, and it’s quite refreshing to engage this concept and moment through the representation of the Black Woman. White subjects tend to be centered in discussions of modernism, which can obscure huge questions about the way the world was being shaped by colonialism and by the transatlantic slave trade in the 1800’s. Though the exhibit doesn’t delve into these murky waters, its frank and matter-of fact confrontations of race and class makes room for these ideas and analyses.

Denise Murrell, the curator, herself a black woman, opens the show with Manet’s La Négrese (Portrait of Laure), a portrait of the black woman featured in Olympia, and shines a light on the woman who is often overlooked in one of the works that ushered in modernist painting.

Édouard Manet,  La Negresse , 1862

Édouard Manet, La Negresse, 1862

Laure, La Negresse, is the woman who waits on the courtesan in Olympia. It’s worth noting that at the time of its creation, Manet’s Olympia was criticized for its frank revisitation of a classical work of art, as it references Titian’s Venus, but lacks the idealization and tidiness of the presentation of the subjects. Much like today, prostitution and sex work were only to be examined from an objectifying and artistic distance, and to present them bluntly was a bit… too much.

Édouard Manet,  Olympia , 1862

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1862

A quick aside: modernism as the movement in painting is the departure from revisiting and referencing classical works and making them relevant to their then contemporary audiences to making the contemporary, or “modern” relevant. Murell expertly communicates this though her exhibition of and caption for Manet’s acolyte Bazille’s La Toilette, a work in the Orientalist style which was originally rejected for exhibition in the salon. After this rejection, Bazille took Manet’s urging that he paint modern scenes more seriously. There’s of course more to modernism than what I can get into here.

Frédéric Bazille,  La Toilette, 1869-1870

Frédéric Bazille, La Toilette, 1869-1870

The first part of the exhibit continually explores these nuances of social relations, of black women next to white women in positions of servitude or other forms of care labor, with the ultimate reminder that we are seeing these relations through the gaze of elite men. We then move across the ocean, and look at work coming out of the States, and Harlem specifically. There’s a lot of exploration of these black women that presents them as figures in their own right: while we were vaguely aware of the fact that the civil war was happening across the ocean as we explored the Paris of the 1850’s, by the time the exhibit brings us to the US, the topic is but a mere memory. The next part of the exhibit shows how European influence persisted, yet how black women were being explored in their own right. There’s a sneaky photo of Billie Holliday - and we see the theme of the prostitute revisited, but this time from a different set of eyes.

Awol Erizku,  Elsa , 2013

Awol Erizku, Elsa, 2013

Throughout the exhibit, the question of who is perceiving and for what audience they are creating for is central.  We see tropes revisited and elaborated on in myriad ways, and what makes this a refreshing take is how black women are centered in this presentation of art history. Also refreshing is the reminder that modernism, at least in painting, was an attempt to grapple with now, as opposed to modernism in the vernacular, which for me references the grasp at an ideal future, a striving away from that which is perceived as primitive to that which is perceived as advanced and researched. I always grapple with this vernacular concept of modernism because for all its striving and self-fixation on its own superiority, I think it’s rather safe to say that our focus on “advanced” technologies and the manner in which we pursue them has created more problems than it has solved. In that sense it was satisfying for me to see this more “simple” approach to modernism - a reminder that the vernacular is more branding campaign than substance.

The last piece in the exhibit was my favorite - a perfect capture of the show as a whole. A question with which to reflect - and one that moves us forward. What perspectives are we presented with? Who do they center, and for whom? And what conclusions do they lead us to?

Ellen Gallagher,  Odalisque,  2013

Ellen Gallagher, Odalisque, 2013