This gallery contains 6 photos.
Fred Wilson is an artist of African, American Indian and European descent and was born in 1954 in The Bronx, NY. He attended Purchase College, State University of New York where he received a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree in 1976. Wilson is best known for his site-specific museum installations and first rose to national prominence with his 1992 exhibition for the Maryland Historical Society, “Mining the Museum.” In this and similar works, Wilson uses objects either not normally on display or typically displayed in a different fashion and juxtaposes them in a way that “alters their traditional meanings or interpretations.”
“Colonial Collection” is part of the 1990 exhibition “Rooms with a View: The Struggle Between Cultural Content and the Context of Art” an installation in which Wilson took two works from 30 artists and then arranged them in three different rooms- a regular gallery space, a white cube and a room designed to look like an ethnographic museum. This work comes from the ethnographic space. “Colonial Collection” features seven African masks hung on a rust colored wall. Around each mask, Wilson wrapped French and British flags which cover the mouth, eyes and nose on the different masks. Beneath the masks is a glass display case which features insect vitrines, a jawbone, Mylar labels, wood and glass vitrines and Harper’s lithographs depicting punitive expeditions between the Zulus and the British and the Ashanti and the British.
Although the masks are trade masks and Wilson had the vitrines in the glass display box made specifically for the exhibit, Wilson’s presentation of the objects under “museum lighting” and within an ethnographic space led many visitors to believe they were seeing traditional ethnographic (or authentic) objects. The work demonstrates the ways in which museums anesthetize and control the presentation of objects making them “hostages to the museum.” The masks are shown as objects, historical and yet devoid of context; they present the idea of a culture while obscuring the realities of how the objects came to be there in the first place. Thus, Wilson demonstrates how context can control, co-opt or even create the narrative of a particular work. In doing so, he raises not only the question of whether the meaning that’s being is correct, but also of who has the right to convey meaning. Such questions arise most frequently in regards to ethnographic objects but are equally relevant contemporary art history. When discussion art at the intersections of race and gender it is necessary to bear in mind not only what but whose story is being told.
Image source: http://www.duke.edu/web/art/newsbyte/Image708.jpg
I shared this photograph in class, but it has stuck in my head since then so I decided to use it as a pinboard post to continue thinking on it in conversation with what we’ve seen in the course so far. The photograph is of a “A warrior woman, near Kambole; insisted on fight with the men” according to the caption. While we do not know much other than the location (the date and name of the photographer are unknown), we do know that at some point the photograph was in the hands of an English speaker, and was probably taken by an English photographer as Zambia was part of the English colony of Rhodesia. The photograph belongs to a larger collection entitled “Scenes of daily life of natives and a foreign missionary in Malawi” (where it states that the collection is from not before 1862.
I offer this image as an intervention. We speak so often of gender, feminism, the male gaze etc, but frame it as only a western phenomenon. In contrast to how we imagine gender and the gaze in Lacanian terms, this image fights the ability of the gaze to control the Other. While this women is placed in the context of colonization, and marked as female, she is playing with gender. As such, her very existence and her gender play make it difficult for her to be marked as a sexual object. While the caption present might have been written in jest (I can imagine it with a “haha” at the end), the way her gaze holds the camera, and the expression on her face, accented by the reflective flecks of some kind of powder make the viewer of the photograph look back at her, and see her in a position of power (over her own body and life) even as she exists in a moment of historical oppression.
In Jacqueline Marval’s Les Odalisques, five female figures occupy a stage-like space before a partially open blue green curtain. A servant offers tea to four members of a harem, who sit and lie in varying degrees of nakedness. The three figures at left look to the figure at far right, who faces them but turns her gaze toward the viewer. Another figure lies on her side, facing us as her body extends beyond the picture plane. Although Marval used chiaroscuro to cast shadows throughout the picture, she chose to stylize the figures rather than model them fully into naturalistic representations of female nudes. The textiles are not nearly as elaborate and sumptuous as those that appear in classic Orientalist harem paintings, like Delacroix’s Women of Algiers from 1834. In Marval’s Odalisques, bright scarves and clothing are pared down planes of color, whose complementary hot and cool shades bring a chromatic balance to the painting.
Gill Perry suggests that with Odalisques, Marval hybridized the typical harem scene, insofar as “the models appear to be Western women participating in an oriental ritual.”  I agree that Marval is Westernizing the women by making them white-skinned, but that is pretty typical in Orientalist painting (see Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque of 1814). I also detect some room for racial indeterminacy, especially with regard to the figure lying on her side, whose pose and hair immediately make me think of the mixed-race youth in George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri of 1845. The part of Perry’s claim that really does not convince me, however, is that these are modern women. Their erect backs and smooth white bodies, which Perry acknowledges but only associates with lifelessness and coldness, make me think that Marval is combining classical archetypes of ideal female bodies with the voluptuous femininities typically associated with Orientalist harem scenes. Here are some examples of Aphrodite statues that contain the impenetrable gazes and rigid facial structures that I detect in Marval’s Odalisques.
Even though Marval used chiaroscuro to concentrate darkness on the faces of the two figures at right, Perry emphasizes her link to the Fauvists, with whom she exhibited at the much historicized 1905 Salon d’Automne (albeit not in the prime real estate of the cage centrale). Marval also appears to me to be participating in Primivitism, a current that was pulsing through avant-garde circles—including but not limited to the Fauvists—by the first decades of the 20th century. Artists engaging in Primitivism sought self re-invention through art that was either non-Western, ancient or both . For these artists, art and ways of art-making that opposed traditional Western criteria of beauty represented the promise of fresh forms of artistic expression—the holy grail of modernism. Picasso famously approached African masks in this manner, while Henri Matisse had revelations in Morocco, August Macke praised the Easter Island statues, and so on. Marval may have been looking to the Ottoman Empire in a traditional Orientalist way, but she also engaged modernist Primitivism by filtering her subjects through an archaic lens in order to reinvent the harem scene. After all, the primitive was defined across two axes: time and space, and Marval was negotiating both of them by painting Turkish concubines with a touch of Greek goddess.
The statuesque women in this picture both arouse and challenge the male gaze. Two of the figures are making direct eye contact with the viewer, but their heavy, parabolic lids restrict access to their pupils, and the viewer cannot discern their emotions. Likewise, while a male viewer can see their naked bodies, he does not have full access because Marval’s figures are either turned away, partially clothed or extending their arms and legs in directions that obscure their breasts and genitals. While the Ingres harem scene that Perry uses as a comparison is a chaotic cornucopia of available flesh, Marval offers a much more disciplined figure grouping in which the women actively govern access to their bodies and psychological state. The half drawn curtain, meanwhile, threatens that the women could disappear “backstage” at any moment. In a sense, Marval tricks the male gaze by inviting it into a somewhat inhospitable environment: For while her scene would have appealed to male spectators at the turn of the century who would have recognized it as heir to the titillating Orientalist paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, Marval’s women also elude the male gaze by countering it with inscrutable expressions and managing its view of their bodies.
1. See Page 207 in, Perry, Gill, ed. Gender and Art. New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1999.
2. For a comprehensive definition of Primitivism, see Leighten, Patricia, and Mark Antliff. “Primitivism.” In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, 170–84. Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Painted by Johann Zoffany, a German born painter who studied in England before moving to England where he became known for painting small group scenes , The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, based on Raphael’s School of Athens, portrays “a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Academicians, shot through with humour and affection: a tribute to the brotherhood shared by artists involved in this fledgling institution. Rather than showcasing an artistic community at work – educating or being educated – it explores the individual character of the various protagonists, as they talk, listen, contemplate, or simply strike poses” . This painting is in contrast to other paintings that focused on the academicians at work, in a space of learning. Despite the models being in the room, the portrait is attempting to show the academicians as they were. Based on the class conversation we had, if that was a stated goal of the painting, I assume that the people were placed together in specific ways. However, being so far removed from the context makes it impossible to know what relationships are being highlighted.
One of the things I found interesting about this painting, as was noted in the book, and source , is that the two women members of the Academy, even when being portrayed in a scene that is outside of the confines of education, are allowed to exist only in a “virtual” form. Mary Mauser and Angelica Kauffman are portrait paintings on the wall, in profile and three-quarters view. The decision to include nude male models makes the scene to indecent for the women to be present , but I can’t help but wonder if their inclusion would have ignited debates over the souls and work lives of women artists. While I understand the discomfort with their presence relative to their time and place in history, what I find peculiar is how the other virtually present women’s bodies are placed, in addition to Mauser and Kauffman losing their bodies.
The walls in the room are covered in bits and pieces of women’s bodies. There are also some additional women’s heads without bodies. I am not positive but I think the full body sculptures are all men, meaning all the women in the painting are portrayed as though decapitated. There is one image of the female form that I find particularly disturbing, despite the headless state of all of them. Given that the reason the two women who were part of the academy cannot be portrayed is that there are nude models present, I am not sure what having a model in the process of disrobing next to a mutilated female form laying on the ground underneath him while one of the academy members stabs her just above her pelvis with a walking stick is saying. I find this mini-scene within a scene particularly jarring because it is one of the two areas of the painting where the gaze of a person, the male model, is pointed outward, towards the viewer. The only other person who looks out of the painting is the virtual presence of Angelica Kauffman. Given that it is his presence along with his colleague behind him that are literally cutting the women out of the painting, and Angelica is one of these cut out women, I cannot help but wonder if this configuration of bodies and body parts is intentional (though I cannot figure out why the body is being stabbed).
The second part of the image that caught me off-guard was the inclusion of Chitqua (Tan Chet Qua) (active 1769-died 1796), Chinese artist. Sitter in 3 portraits . The reason I find his inclusion so striking is because when I imagine what a Royal Academy gathering would look like, more than the absence of woman, the inclusion of people who are not of European ancestry was not what I was expecting. After doing a bit of web research I’ve learned that my initial thoughts might be correct.
The only gate-crasher to this party is the Chinese artist, Tan-che-qua (fifth from the left), who happened to be in London at the time. Apart from curiosity value, his inclusion here may be a reminder of the writer of the Royal Academy’s Professor of Poetry, Oliver Goldsmith (?1730-74), who published a series of letters, with the title The Citizen of the World, supposedly written by a Chinaman visiting England .
While this quotes allows for the Chinese artist to be a “Gate Crasher”, it also places Chinese thought and art in dialogue with European art and thought in a way I was not aware of at this period in time. I think this is important, especially given the context of this course because, while we’ve discussed gender at length, I think this might be our first racial encounter, outside of the White Boyz, we’ve had. His inclusion, along with the international makeup of the sitters, (10 of 34 were not British ), forces me to re-frame how I imagine the Royal Academy.