Black Perfomance Art as Black Feminism: Changing Perspectives in the Contemporary Art World

For hundreds of years, Art History has been occupied by deceased white men, their oil paintings, and their stories. Giorgio Vasari, who is often considered the first Art Historian, published his seminal work Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550 and his primary method of biography is still used today. However unlike Vasari, modern Art Historians offer complex analyses on canonical works of art by using methods like Iconography and Semiotics in addition to providing biographical information about the artist. Today, the biography of an artist is typically used as an entry point for discussion rather than a basis for analysis of a work of art.

That having been said, while the focus on biography has decreased for most white male artists, the Art Historical discourse for female artists of color is still heavily dominated by biography. As Adrian piper points out in her essay “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists,” the focus on the individual, rather than the art can be incredibly detrimental, especially for Colored Women Artists (CWAs). Piper gives us three reasons why a lone biographical methodology is problematic:

1) focusing on the biography of a CWA turns the artist into “a cryptic, exotic object that provides the occasion for Euroethnic self-analysis”

2) “focusing on the otherness of the artist rather than the meaning of the art presupposes a background of Euroethnic homogeneity against which the person can be identified as an ‘other’”

3) “CWAs in particular suffer from this focus because they have to battle gender and race stereotypes simultaneously.”[1]

Adrian Piper, “Catalysis III”, 1970

Historically, artists who are not white or male are remembered for their biographies and not their work, if they are remembered at all; even the iconic Frida Kahlo is frequently memorialized as Diego Rivera’s wife rather than the great painter that she was. I would love to say that I have not fallen victim to the trap of historicizing CWAs rather than their work, but because biography is the model most likely to be seen in texts about these artists, it is hard not to follow the same path, albeit unintentionally.

In our contemporary society, which many wrongfully consider “post-racial”, Black female artists have to fight for non-biographical representation . There are a few artists who are actively trying to alter their modes of self-representation in order to combat this and change the trajectory of Art History . Over the last few months, my mind has kept going back to the idea of Black Performance Art as an act of Black Feminism and how that informs a new Art Historical dialogue. Specifically, I am interested in how Black female artists subvert the canon by producing innovative performances and how these artists write about their personal experiences themselves rather than waiting for another article that dismisses their work in favor of their biographies.

Lorraine O’Grady, “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire”, 1980–1983

Three artists who I believe transform the way in which they are perceived as a result of their art work and writing are Adrian Piper, Lorraine O’Grady, and Kenya (Robinson). Each of these artists have very different art making practices and documentation styles, but they all create spaces for themselves and their art work and they all seek to educate the public about their work and what it represents.

I venture to say that what these artists are doing are acts of Black Feminism because they all have been denied space at one point or another. Each of these artists has felt excluded from the mainstream, white-washed art world and rather than accepting this fate, these artists have challenged it and triumphed. Piper, O’Grady, and (Robinson) defy the notions of Black Female Artistry that have been placed upon them by the canon and extend themselves beyond their biographies, while still stressing the importance of personal histories and experiences.

Kenya (Robinson), “CHEEKY LaSHAE with bathmat” , 2014

The lived experiences of Black women make up a large part of Black Feminist Thought and Black Feminist Art. It is not fair to discuss any artist’s work without their biography; but with it, one must always offer critical analyses of the works under the appropriate lenses as well. In this case, that lens is Black Feminism.

[1] Jones, Amelia, and Adrian Piper. “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists.” In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 239–246. New York, New York: Routledge, 2003. Pg. 241–242

Suggested Reading

Bobo, Jacqueline, and Frida High W. Tesfagiorgis. “In Search of a Discourse and Critique/s That Center the Art of Black Women Artists.” In Black Feminist Cultural Criticism, 146–163. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2001.

Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West.” Signs: Common Grounds and Crossroads: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in Women’s Lives 14, no. 4 (1989): 912–20. Accessed April 20, 2015. Common Grounds and Crossroads: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in Women’s Lives.

hooks, bell. “Art on My Mind: Visual Poltics.” CUNY Macaulay Honors. January 1, 1995. Accessed April 20, 2015.

Jones, Amelia, and Adrian Piper. “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists.” In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 239–246. New York, New York: Routledge, 2003.

Jones, Amelia, and bell hooks. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 94–105. New York, New York: Routledge, 2003.

Jones, Amelia, and Lorraine O’Grady. “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 174–185. New York, New York: Routledge, 2003.

(Robinson), Kenya. “Kenya (Robinson) Workspace.” Kenya (Robinson) Workspace. Accessed April 16, 2015.