Inspired by the explorations of race, gender and sexuality in the work of American artists Kara Walker and Cindy Sherman, and London-based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Mary cast her own body in fibreglass and silicone to create Sophie. She then painted her a “flat black,” so that she stands out like a dark and static shadow … Sophie’s eyes are always closed as if in a “constant ecstasy of fantasy” and it’s in her mind that her dress becomes a thing of voluminous Victorian splendour. “If she opened her eyes, it would be back to work – cleaning this, dusting that. Her dress would become an ordinary maid’s uniform,” said Mary.
– Elle Decoration ZA (Cited at M. Dash)
The body, for Sibande, and particularly the skin, and clothing is the site where history is contested and where fantasies play out. Centrally, she looks at the generational disempowerment of black women and in this sense her work is informed by postcolonial theory, through her art making. In her work, domestic setting acts as a stage where historical psycho-dramas play out.
Sibande’s work also highlights how priviledged ideals of beauty and femininity aspired to by black women discipline their body through rituals of imitation and reproduction. She inverts the social power indexed by Victorian costumes by reconfiguring it as a domestic worker’s “uniform” complexifying the colonial relationship between “slave” and “master” in a post-apartheid context. The fabric used to produce uniforms for domestic workers is an instantly recognizable sight in domestic spaces in South Africa and by applying it to Victorian dress she attempts to make a comment about history of servitude as it relates to the present in terms of domestic relationships.
— Gallery MOMO
I’m thrilled that my friend and colleague Isabel Molina Guzman has entered the blogosphere with Color (Re)adjustment, an extension of her valuable scholarship on race and representational politics. In her words, Color (Re)Adjustment (an homage to the late great filmmaker and educator Marlon Riggs) hopes “to disrupt the burden of representation by stepping outside of a commitment to respectability; to move conversations outside of the confining dichotomy of the positive and negative image debate.”
Her thoughts on the mind-boggling controversy over Venus Williams’ tennis shorts at the Australian Open are absolutely right-on. That some commentators might believe or suggest that Venus Williams would perform without underwear in a global arena –examining closely, and inviting others to do the same, photographs of Venus’s backside to try to discern exactly what they might (or might not) be seeing– seems continuous with long histories of discourses and practices of scrutiny and surveillance aimed at black female bodies.
In Spectacle of the Other Stuart Hall writes, “Representation is a complex business and, especially when dealing with ‘difference’, it engages feelings, attitudes and emotions and it mobilizes fears and anxieties in the viewer, at deeper levels than we can explain in a simple, common-sense way.” So I ask you, in a world where women tennis stars are paid millions to wear as little as possible on the courts, what is underlying the public hysteria surrounding Venus Williams 2010 Australian Open outfit, an outfit that she designed for herself under her label?
It appears that the spectacle of the black female bootie threatens the spectra of upper-class respectability surrounding the predominantly white sport of tennis, a sport that has only had two black elite female stars in the last 20 years — Venus and Serena Williams. What I find truly humorous and troubling is that tennis fans and the mainstream media find it plausible that one of the world’s best women’s athlete would actually go on international television flashing her butt and vagina. What does this say about the contemporary representational status of black urban femininity and sexuality?