As an Art History and Gender & Sexuality Studies double major, my internship at Woman Made Gallery has been an extremely valuable learning experience. The current solo show by Shoshanna Weinberger “potbelly pin-ups: out of many one,” proved highly relevant to one of my art history courses, Black Visual Cultures: Race and Representation, and became the basis for this video, my final project for the class.
After the opening of Shoshanna Weinberger’s exhibition, I had the opportunity to interview her. She also sent articles about her work for me to reference, one of which, “Attack of the Boogeywoman: Visualizing Black Women’s Grotesquerie in Afrofuturism” by Jared Richardson, became my jumping off point for this video. I quickly became interested in comparing the work of Wangechi Mutu with Shoshanna Weinberger in their use of the visual rhetoric of the grotesque to tackle issues of the historical and contemporary representation of the black female body as other.
-Why did you develop this body of work for your exhibition at Woman Made Gallery?
The work in Potbelly Pin-Ups: Out of Many One stems from an ongoing body of work that I have been exploring for several years. The imagery explores my criticism of what popular culture defines feminine beauty to be. I then skew and distort, creating mutations of beauty. For this show, I want to personalize my history by using the creed of my native Jamaica Out of Many One within the title to suggest myself “out of many one” to connect the idea that mutations are unique (one) from a generation. These single mutations I construct allude to the popular pin-up and its history to single out feminine beauty however in my case decidedly ugly. I purposely frame each pin-up inside the broader alluding to the pin-up poster size 30 x 22 or 30 x 26. And the large scale works referring to billboard size.
-What does it mean to show this particular work in a feminist art gallery?
Having my first Chicago solo show at WMG is an honor and it’s ideology is fitting within the context of my work. I hope the show will receive exposure to the WMG community opening a dialogue and finding connections within the greater Chicago-art community as well.
Not sure if you know, but it was a few year after I graduated from SAIC ’95 that I applied to an exhibition open call at Woman Made Gallery (maybe 1998?) I did not get into the show. However instead of absorbing the rejection as a blow to my artistic practice and ego, it only fueled and inspired me to further my career as an artist. Creating work for that show extended into building a larger body of work and portfolio, which I then applied to graduate school with. I was accepted into the Yale School of Art, Yale University, Masters of Fine Arts Painting/Printmaking program MFA ’03 and have to thanks WMG for inspiring me. And make having this solo show even more significant to me.
-We are totally moved and impressed by the seemingly impossible and very successful co-existence of humor and violence in your work. What is the source of these two elements, and how are they in conversation with one another?
I enjoy my titles. They stem from memories, pop-culture whether from music, classic or film noir. Along with historical references, natural things, and even beauty products. I enjoy marrying disparate things and the titles evoke some humor and/or at times can be slightly political and subversive.
-At the opening, we talked about your grandmothers, one Jamaican and one Jewish, and their influence on you and your work. Can you talk about how family criticism and support influence your work? Furthermore, how your heritage and ethnically diverse upbringing influence you?
Being ethnically diverse allowed me to see that there really is no difference other than people worshipping differently thus my discussion about my two grandmothers being the same. I have a problem with checking the “other” box in the “race” catagory. I usually write in “Human Race” I dislike that our culture needs to organize and catalogue people for statistics… I am a product of love not race or religion.
However because of society’s construction, I have often reference W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Double Consciousness.” I have in other drawing series used the jazz song “strangefruit” to define myself as peripheral, examining how others perceive and define me, as I am considered “exotic” in America; and not “Jamaican-enough” in Kingston. This experience of existing in two-different cultures, has allowed me understand the complex facets of beauty from both geographical perspectivas. Returning to titles for a moment… the jazz song title Strangefruit seems to sum up this idea complexity in abstraction. I have incorporated the title of famous protest song Strange Fruit written by Jewish-school teacher Abel Meeropol and made famous by singer Billie Holiday. Adapting the song-title Strange Fruit as a defining symbol for myself: the product of a Jewish man and Caribbean woman. The Jewish man “seeded or wrote” the poem and an African-American (in my case Caribbean-Black) woman who gave “birth or sung” – me the poem. Thus the title has a personal reference through cultural reference.
Lucky, that both families have supported my artistic career, and had a mother who was an artist herself. My mother Marlene Lewis went back to get her MFA in the 90s and at one point we were both in the 2006 and 2008 Jamaican Biennials separately presenting our work there. In 2010, my mother lost for 12 year battle with breast cancer however heartfelt she cannot be with me to share these experiences; she is with me in spirit everyday.
Today, my family is very excited for my successes and I believe in not having expectations and living up to anyone’s standards but my own. Glad to have had the freedom to be myself and not have a complex about who I am and where I fit in.
-You also talk about the distortions of beauty in the media, can you talk about how that personally affects you and your work?
I am trying to present an exaggeration of aesthetics that result in imagery depicting excess, malformed and decapitated bodies, mutations of multiple-mouths, breasts and buttocks. I am displaying only the parts that are desired: lips, legs, ass, breasts and hair. I am reducing to the most sexualized and then repeating it removing everything else and leaving parts. I consider what popular culture defines as feminine beauty to be is skewed and distorted. Making connections with the awkwardness as a female growing-up, trying to define myself within a context of regional, social, and cultural beauty. Reflecting on my personal issue the media and Hollywood. I am exploring that the social norms are abnormal. Excessive plastic surgery and body dimorphic are just one of many avenues that I explore. My drawings relate to all women as each of us see magazines and deal with the global media culture of beauty that in many ways comes at us from various avenues. I believe that it a part of our obsession that extends beyond beauty but cultural ideology.
-I am very interested in your focus on the figure of the Hottentots Venus and how that trope extends to modern day figures. How do you see the image of the “Hottentot” functioning in your work?
I believe my drawings touch on a boarder cultural range of body portraiture. Although there is a vast history of Western culture creating myths based on difference and fear of femininity as viewed within a male-culture. My drawings are a body of work that explore contemporary connections stemming from the myth of ‘otherness doing otherness things’ as well as my addressing/defining cultural stereotypes, and historical references of subjugated women as modern-day Hottentots alluding to Sarrtjie Baartman, Josephine Baker and branching out to contemporaries, from Jennifer Lopez, Snookie to the infantile Honey-Boo Boo. Recreating a visual psychology in the drawings is captured in the beauty distortion found in prepubescent pageant toddlers, teenage girls, strip-club dancers, West-Indian Dancehall performers, pop-culture icons, and even self-portraits. It is wonderful to have women of all back-ground express that they relate to a pose or moment in my work.
-Your work has been compared to that of Wangechi Mutu and Kara Walker regarding its representation and distortion of the black female body. How do you see your work interacting with such themes?
It is nice to be aligned with both artists. Each of us make work in context to individual perceptions of cultural history. Mutu, Walker and I each have our own personal visual language and unique mark making that explores similar themes on body, hair, identity and culture.
Kara Walker’s focus has been the southern-African-American diasporia slightly different from me Caribbean-American persona however we both use the silhouette. My use of silhouettes is to create an anonymous figure to show my deformed bodies along with presenting a solid (at times) clean form which Walker presents in a different more political theme.
I consider myself a visual anthropologist examining female archetypes. Installing combinations of drawings, I create a collection of images on paper that present as one work. Both Mutu and Walker use drawing differently. I lean towards a modernist style with wall installations are displayed in a grid.
Mutu has play with material and is more surreal in her constructions. Her collage-work is from found media, like her, I play with drawing styles to create an exquisite corpse but I make my own collage papers.
I hope to have the same exposure that both Wangechi Mutu and Kara Walker have now.
-When we spoke you talked about how you know each piece specifically according to their names. Can you talk a little bit about the ways you name your pieces? What is the significance of naming your works so specifically? What does wordplay and the use of cliches and slang add to your work?
SW: My titles stem from pop-culture of my generation; humour; film noir; the harlem renaissance; personal sound bites; music titles; nods to art heroes; and object found in nature. My drawings are specimens.
In 32AAA the image of a strong Afro-styled figure stands with zebra bra, the title 32AAA refers to my late mother’s bra size. Or in the title Crooked Teeth, when I placed the collage paper red lips down on the drawing, I married the title to the work as it seemed fitting right then and there. She Wears It Well, is one my large scale drawings that “wears” my Love Lost Love Found graffiti is one of the darker images with a sarcastic tone. Early Bloomer, refers to myself awkward early pre-pubescence trying fit-in with my body changing. Smoker, large scale black ground work the lips look like the end of a cigarette and the act of drawing up a cigarette has an oral, orphus and sexual relationship. Surprise, wearing a strap on or maybe its a portrait of a middle sex?
Honey Boo calls up as it related to our society’s obsession with people who are famous for not being famous or doing anything special. Reality TV and the culture started with the talk-shows in the 80s people spilling their souls out to us and our culture being interested in it. Honey Boo is my criticism of just he show where a 7 year old is entered into beauty contests, made-up to look like a woman and the distortion that this is normal seems like Brain-washing young people into what beauty is to be.
-All your works in this show were done in acrylic on paper, why do you use painting as opposed to other mediums?
SW: The drawings are not all in acrylic on paper only one work has acrylic the rest are made using gouache and/or ink, oil pastels, pencil and collage. Each can have one or all of these combinations. The large scale drawing entitled Smoker, I use acrylic to fill the background of my 72+H x 60W paper with but the rest is white gouache/pink mouth. Gouache is an opaque watercolor unforgiving and a challenge in mark making, in that you cannot erase the lines or marks made. I like that pressure and find it immediate results suitable to my studio practice.