Lisa Gail Collins, “Economies of the Flesh: Representing the Black Female Body in Art” [from The Art of History: African-American Women Artists Engage the Past, by, pp. 37-63]
Collin’s recounting of the long history of exploitation of black female bodies does a good job of exploring the many dilemmas black woman artists face when portraying their bodies through art. As the essay points out, reclaiming black female bodies presents an incredible challenge due to the fact that America as well as countless other countries enslaved said bodies for centuries, and after this period of enslavement, clung to the negative and extremely damaging preconceptions about black people and their bodies. Therefore I can understand Edmonia Lewis’ decision to portray the emancipated black girl in “Forever Free” as completely asexual both in her kneeling pose that hides her womanly form and in her odd and out of place anglo-European features which takes her outside context of the hyper-sexualized black body by removing her black features entirely. Although I think, especially when placed in a modern-day context, that this method of protecting the image of black women through erasure of our features ultimately causes more problems than it solves, finding a proper solution during that time must have seemed near impossible. Even Josephine Baker who proudly embraced her body and played with typical European assumptions of blacks as inherently more animalistic and sexual than whites in a tongue-in-cheek manner contributed to the false perceptions of black women. Despite this I don’t see Baker as an “enemy” or “traitor”: on the contrary I have always admired her for her ambition, contribution to the Civil Rights movement, and generally energetic and playful persona that she created for herself. However, her performances do not exist in a vacuum, and as a result, performances such as the famous”banana dance” were highly evocative of harmful stereotypes that persist today.
Honestly I can’t say for sure that a definite solution to the problems surrounding the black female body in art exists. History has proven that neither denying the existence of our features nor emphasizing and reclaiming them has worked to completely dismantle the oppressive patriarchal standards that still define the mainstream perception of blackness. In addition considering the art world’s inaccesible nature even works by Kara Walker’s or Lyle Ashton Harris can only do so much to combat these stereotypes. However, I do think more positive, realistic portrayals of black women and black women’s sexuality in more mainstream forms of entertainment such as television, movies, etc. can have an overall positive effect on society as has been proven with shows like The Cosby Show and A Different World. A resurgence of that trend of story-lines focused on black or minority characters in general could begin to make slow but steady steps towards change and ultimately make it easier for black women artists to depict their bodies in any way they want without fear of becoming trapped in outdated and racist projections from society.