Seeing Black

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Today in Racial Injustice: Nicholasville KY Lynching (from EJI.org)

We begin this week by thinking about what it means to look, and to be looked at, in the context of racial injustice. First, read Ashley Andrews’ Closer Look at the Butt: Appropriation and Exploitation of Black Female Sexuality. In this essay, Andrews discusses the hypersexualization of Black women’s bodies, beginning with the grotesque story of Sarah Baartman (better known as the “Hottentot Venus”; where “Hottentot” was the name used by Europeans for the Khoi Khoi people of South Africa). In Andrews’ words:

“The tragic story of the Hottentot Venus shows how scientific racism played a big role in the development of stereotypical traits of black women. A big butt was seen to be primitive and subhuman. By dehumanizing the black female body, whites were able to conduct experiments on black women by justifying their actions.”

Andrews also discusses modern agents of hypersexualization, and the subsequent appropriation of Black women’s sexuality (which we touched on last week).

Moving now to the act of looking, today we feature two visual artists: painter Kerry James Marshall, and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier.

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Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter), 2009, acrylic on PVC, 44 5/8 x 43 1/8 x 3 7/8 in., collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Katherine S. Schamberg by exchange, photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Kerry James Marshall’s first retrospective exhibition, Mastry, has been touring the US since last year. The exhibition just closed at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum, but will reopen at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in early March.

Marshall’s paintings depict vibrant scenes of Black American everyday life, with a conscious engagement in the underrepresentation of Black artists in painting. As quoted in the MOCA article linked above, Marshall has said:
“You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go…”

From Marshall’s work with painting as a way of seeing Black experience, we move to artist, activist, and MacArthur Genius Fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier. Hailing from Braddock, Pennsylvania, Frazier uses her photography to document the intersection of environmental and social justice. Most recently, Frazier spent time documenting the lives of residents in Flint, MI, currently entering their third year of the Flint water crisis, in her photo series Flint Is Family. Through Frazier’s lens, we see how the legacy of slavery continues to deny basic human rights (like access to clean water) to Black people.

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