Tag Archives: Self/Other

Chapter Post: Toyo Miyatake and “Our World” by Karin Higa

Karin Higa’s chapter “Toyo Miyatake and ‘Our World’” centers on a 1944 high school year book called Our World and the photographer who made it possible, Toyo Miyatake.  The yearbook was product of high school students interned in the American concentration camp Manzanar in California which held more than 11,000 Japanese Americans from March 1942 to November 1945.  Higa’s chapter analyzes the many roles of Miyatake- as a photographer for the Our World yearbook, as the official photographer of Manzanar, as an artist and as an interned Japanese American – in relation to the phenomenon of Japanese internment and notion of Americanness in a unique historical moment.

Miyatake served for all intents and purposes as the official photograph at Manzanar assuming this role first in an illicit manner using a camera and film he had smuggled into the camp from Los Angeles, before being given essentially free reign to photograph by the camp’s director.  Prior to his internment, Miyatake had been a fairly successful photographer.  In addition to owning his own photographic studio in, Miyatake participated in a number of international and national photography salons and even worked as a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun photographing the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.  In addition, Miyatake’s work with the Shaku-do-Sha, “an interdisciplinary group of painter, poets and photographers based in Little Tokyo” uniquely positioned him as “both insider and outsider in his photographic practice” a role that likely influenced his role as a photographer in Manzanar (337).

While interned, Miyatake continued to operate as a photographer in much the same way as he had outside of the camp, photographing family events as well as daily life around the camp.  The desire to have these moments captured on film was so strong that it became necessary to institute a system of rationing whereby coupons were distributed to families for particular events.  Miyatake also photographed nearly all of the images for the Our World yearbook (with the famed Ansel Adams contributing the few not by Miyatake).  Finally, Miyatake photographed the images for Valediction which was the yearbook for Manzanar High School’s class of 1945, the final graduating class from Manzanar.

Miyatake’s personal background and the ways in which he continued to operate within some degree of normalcy are essential to Higa’s discussion of Our World as Miyatake embodies in many ways the underlying tensions of the project.  At its core, Our World represented a desire for normalcy, as the forward explains the purpose of the yearbook was to “approximate in all activities we knew ‘back home.’” (335).   The yearbook bears much in common with conventional high school annuals of the day.  Individual students are presented in rows of headshots and are identified by name as well as by the name of their home high schools, those which they would be attending were it not for their internment.  The annual also featured collaged photographs assembled to look like candid snapshots as well as an “Activities” section.  Another section entitled “Democracy” featured photographs of town hall meetings and Japanese American soldiers.  The rest of the sections were devoted to depicting various aspects of daily life in Manzanar.

A central thesis of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks is that they function as deliberate and orchestrated performances of American-ness through an excessive attempt at presenting normality intended to counteract conceptions of Japanese-Americans as the enemy.  In turn, Miyatake’s photographs extend the project beyond mere documentation by presenting images that on the surface lack a constructed narrative.  Thus, the almost banal nature of Miyatake’s photographs “underscores the absurdity of the incarceration itself.” (340).  When viewed in the context of the present day, it is this banality that makes the images even more unsettling.  As Higa writes, “it is difficult to reconcile the severe and harrowing experiences of incarceration with a seemingly contradictory picture of utter normality.” (338).

While I agree with much of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks and the work of  Miyatake, leaves little room for divergence regarding the identities of those in the camps.  In other words, Higa presents the experience of the internment camps as a monolith; an experience that erased all differences among the Japanese Americans in the camps.  As with any shared experience this was undoubtedly true to a certain extent.  While in the internment camps, outside signifiers of difference disappeared creating a shared sense of identity and experience.  However, the experience of those in the camps must inherently have diverged as well.  Within internment camps were business owners who were forced to give up their businesses while others came into the camps with little to their name.  In addition, some in the camps were already second generation American citizens while others were still citizens of Japan.  In this light, the forward of Our World stating that the students sought an approximation of activities from “back home” is problematized.  The home to which this refers is different for each student in more than just the literal sense.  While the images in the yearbook may serve as a holistic performance of “American-ness”, they did not derive from a singular sense of what that American-ness meant and what it ought to look like.  While Miyatake’s images may at first present an image of normalcy in America, in addition to overlooking the absurdity of internment to which Higa alludes, they also overlook the artificiality of this normalcy within the Japanese American community.  The presentation of the Japanese American community as just that, a singular community, is in of itself a creation within a creation and one that is not accounted for in Higa’s analysis of Miyatake’s photos

Along this same line, Higa describes Miyatake’s continued devotion to American ideals and identity even in the face of “assaults on person liberty, property, and political identity.” (343).  Higa hints at how this concept is problematic and is in fact problematized somewhat by the “self-conscious fashioning of young Japanese Americans who knew that because they looked like the enemy, they were deemed so by their own government.” (343). However, Higa fails to address the way in which this tension was concurrently playing itself out in a national and nationalistic sense.  Is a nation reductive in the sense that it represents what we all have in common, or is it about a geographical boundary within which diversity persists but exists under the umbrella of the nation?

Such a struggle plays itself out in the photographs of Miyatake as they present images seeking to demonstrate a shared identity between those within the camps and those outside of them.  These are not images of the enemy but are instead images of Americans.  At the same time, the images, and in particular Our World, demonstrate a separate community, one defined by geographical space.  This community is the one inside the camps, and in a literal sense you are either in or you’re out.  To the extent that Our World served as a performance of American-ness it also served as a performance of Japanese-American-ness one that functioned to identify otherness just as much as sameness.

While internment camps, unfortunately, came to define in part what it meant to be Japanese American, the sheer existence of such camps cut at the notion of what it meant to be American.  The American ideals Miyatake sought to uphold were in flux and not just within the camps.  In many ways, the entire country during this time was taking part in a performance of American-ness that, in the same manner as the ongoing performance in Manzanar, left unresolved many of the questions of what this American-ness meant or to what end it was serving.

Finally, the question arises as to how these images should be approached today.  For many Americans, the existence of internment camps remains a dark spot in our history, an occurrence that is often overlooked or minimized.  As has been discussed in this essay, this struggle is not new and it is likely the case that these images would have been just as troubling to some in 1944 as they remain in 2012.  Thus, who were these images intended for?  The answer to this question plays an important role in how we look at these images today.  It seems unlikely that at the time anyone outside of the camp would have seen them or that those within the camp would have expected their audience to be anyone other than themselves.  At the same time, the entire staging of both Our World and Valediction suggest, perhaps idealistically, a broader audience.  Further, yearbooks inherently speak to a future audience, encapsulating memories with the idea that we will one day return to reflect on our former selves.  Depicting vulnerable and awkward periods of our lives, yearbooks anticipate our looking back with both nostalgia and regret.

Anyone who has ever returned to a yearbook can appreciate the exercise.  For some, they see a time to which they wish they could return, other see things they wish they could forget.  In many ways, it is not so much what yearbooks depict that determines their importance in our lives.  Rather, it is just that they exist.  It is comfort that comes with knowing our memories are safely stored, that they remain in a medium to which we can always return.  A yearbook can be shared not only with those from our past but also those from our present.  The function of Miyatake’s images in this capacity both in the lives of those pictured as well as within the particular moment of American history, should not be overlooked.  Our World remains the world of those interned in Manzanar, but its existence permits those who count themselves amongst the “our” in that phrase to continue not only to exist, but more importantly to expand.

Image Sources:

http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v32n1/broz.html

All page numbers refer to-

Higa, Karin. “Toyo Miyatake and “Our World.”  In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Malibu Betty (Pinboard #7)

Ali Kheradyar, “Malibu Betty,” 2011, c-print, 48 x 36 inches, edition of 5

Ali Kheradyar is a Los Angeles based artist of Iranian heritage although she was born and raised in the United States.  Her training is in music and dance.  Much of her work focuses on the female body and, in many instances, her own body.  These works use the body as a jumping off point to explore themes such as beauty, sculpture, commercialization, sexuality and gender.

This work entitled, “Malibu Betty” from 2011 is part of Kheradyar’s Dye series.  In Dye, Kheradyar photographs portraits of her pubic hair covered in Betty Hair Dye.  The dye specifically designed for use on one’s pubic hair and is for women who want their pubic hair to match the hair on their head whether it is blonde, brunette, pink, purple, or, as is the case in this work, Malibu Blue.  The minimalistic image features a cropped close-up of Kheradyar’s lower torso, legs and pubic region.  Her pubic hair is matted with a thick layer of the Malibu Blue dye which contrasts starkly to the pale tone of her skin and brings an element of playfulness to an otherwise muted work.

For the artist, the dye raised a number of questions, as she writes, “What was this practice about?  The commercialization of the female?  Consumerism?  Color?  Challenging the male gaze, or partaking in female objectification?  How are these products appealing?  Is this sexy?  What do these products say about sex culture and beauty now?”  Many of these questions remain unresolved in Kheradyar’s work.  Without knowing the artist’s background or the context of the work, the image could easily be an advertisement for the product.  At the same time, Kheradyar’s use of her own body and its simultaneous simple presentation coupled with assertive presentation of the self, echo Ana Mendieta.  However, such contradictions and layered meanings are an essential part of the questioning process Kheradyar is driving at.  Her work highlights the ways in which sexuality can at times be ridiculous, absurd and even funny doing so an practical and straightforward manner.  Rather than poking fun at a product that turns your pubic hairs blue, to form this observation, however, she simply uses it as it was intended to be used.  In this regard, her work turns the questions she seeks to address to the viewer.  You can almost feel her asking the viewer, in genuine curiosity, “is this sexy?”  In turning this question around rather than explicitly asking it by presenting herself in a provocative or sarcastic mode, she is able to effectively disrupt a simple reading of her work.

Sources:

http://www.alikheradyar.com/

http://sweet-station.com/blog/2012/04/dye-by-ali-kheradyar/

http://www.western-project.com/artists/ali-kheradyar/#6

 

Indigo Som: Chinese Restaurants and Chinese American Identity (Pinboard # 6)

Indigo Som, “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi”, 2004-2005

 

Indigo Som is a Chinese American who grew up in Marin County, California and remains a California based artist.  This image, entitled “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi” is part of Som’s series Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South 2004-2005.  As the title indicates, the series focuses on Chinese restaurants located in Mississippi.  Som describes her impetus for the project as stemming from the contrast between the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants in America and the continued characterization of a Chinese presence in America as “perpetually foreign and intrinsically un-American.”  The duality of this phenomenon was particularly striking to Som in the form of Chinese Restaurants and in particular unexpected Chinese restaurants which is to say those that you see “in tiny towns when you’ve been driving for hours with no Chinese folks in sight.”  One such place was Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In this image, the Chinese Restaurant Wu’s is shown in a desolate landscape.  Although several cars are visible in the parking lot, the image conveys a sense of isolation.  Further, although Som draws attention to the restaurant by using it as the subject of her photograph, she also highlights its mundane nature through brown and grey tonalities as well as the devoting nearly half of the frame to asphalt road along which Wu’s is located.  The ways in which Chinese restaurants have become a caricature of Chinese culture are evident in this image.  The font in which the name “Wu’s” is written appears to calls to mind, albeit tenuously, calligraphic Chinese lettering.  In addition,  the building which is otherwise a non-descript tan colored cement block, features a green overhanging pavilion roof that, despite bearing similarity to the drive thru next door, is enough to indicate in one quick glance that this is a Chinese restaurant.

Such embellishments are not necessary, yet they underscore the interplay between authenticity and foreignness that dominate American perceptions of Chinese culture. Nearly every American has eaten food from a Chinese restaurant, Chinese food is in many ways an American cultural staple.  Americans have always incorporated things from other cultures, that is in fact a defining feature of the “melting pot mentality” of American culture However, Som’s image of Wu’s reveals more than mere appropriation.  Rather what Som’s image shows is the continued isolation of Asian-American culture in favor of an imagined Asian-American culture.  The fact that this restaurant in no way resembles actual Chinese culture is not important.  Consumers of Chinese food in America are not seeking an actual Chinese culture, rather they are seeking an imagined one- one that is foreign but harmless, exotic but safe, distant but right at home.  Again, creating caricatures of other cultures as a means of harnessing or destabilizing their presence in America is not something that is unique to Chinese-Americans.  What is unique is the particular role played by Chinese restaurants in this process.  They function both as a point of contact (in some cases real, more frequently imagined) between American and Chinese American culture, but also highlight the absurdity of the American conception of Chinese-American culture as well as the continued othering of Chinese and on a broader scale, Asian culture, that makes little logistical sense.

Sources:

http://sites.asiasociety.org/arts/onewayoranother/oneway3.html#Indigo

http://www.well.com/~indigo/

http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Berkeley-artist-goes-deep-to-get-her-fill-of-2722528.php#photo-2176652

http://www.creativeworkfund.org/modern/bios/indigo_som.html

 

Pinboard Entry #7: Desiring the Other

Kent Monkman
Icon for a New Empire
2007

In the interior of this artist’s studio, strange things are afoot. The sculptor has laid down his chisel, for the Native American on horseback he is sculpting has come alive. Outfitted in fringed hide pants and beaded moccasins, the artist stands on his tip toes and plunges his body into the embrace of his subject, who is in living color only from the waist up. Above them a mutant cupid aims his arrow. The lovers are framed by Indian artifacts such as arrows, feathers, a fringed hide shirt and a mask as well as a small scale model of the life-size sculpture that is underway.

This is one of contemporary artist Kent Monkman’s critiques of representations of Native Americans in Western art. An artist of Cree ancestry who is widely exhibited in Canada, Monkman revisits famous images of native North American peoples and landscapes, altering their details to explicitly reveal layers of desire and violence that were previously only implied. In this piece, Monkman is not only playing off of the long tradition of studio scenes that are fraught with unconsummated (at least pictorially) ententes between artists and their models in Western art history (like this and this), he is also referencing a specific work from the American canon: James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail. A sculptor trained in Chicago but born and raised in South Dakota, Fraser began sculpting Native American subjects after the 1893 World’s Colombian exhibition, where he encountered a plethora of Native American imagery.

Monkman’s painting is a critique of white artists like Fraser, who from the second quarter of the mid-19th century onward became increasingly interested in depicting Native Americans in photography, painting and sculpture. Monkman interprets the desire that fueled that process very literally by casting the artist and subject as lovers. While sexuality may have played a role, the attraction to Native American subjects had many other dimensions as well, from the imperialist (see the naturalist expedition art of Titan Ramsay Peale) to the opportunistic (see the Indian Gallery of George Catlin) to the primitivist (see the Amerika series by Marsden Hartley).

Pinboard Entry #6: Black History Painting

Kerry James Marshall
Portrait of John Punch (Angry Black Man 1646)
source: artslant.com

In this disarming three-quarter portrait, the hulking figure of John Punch seemingly sways to the left against a black background. He is clad in a bulky tunic with an upright white collar that offsets the intense blackness of his face. His arms are pulled behind his back, indicating that he is not a free man, yet he confronts the viewer with a stare emanating from narrowed eyes. An errant lock of hair pulls to the far left of the frame. A red band runs across the top of the painting—the sole injection of bright color in this dark picture.

Punch is regarded as the first African to spend his life in servitude in the United States. The date included in the title of the painting, 1646, represents the year that he was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery by a State court. Punch is one of several historical black figures that the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall  has memorialized as part of a larger effort to break up the supremacy of white figures on the walls of art museums. For Marshall, the fact that museums are dominated by portraits, history paintings and genre scenes picturing white people is evidence that painting is hardly a finished, outmoded media.

In addition to his critique of the over-representation of white subjects, Marshall uses paintings like this to highlight other ways that the revered styles and schools of the Western art canon have privileged whiteness  For instance, Marshall takes on Malevich’s white on white Suprematist Painting, proving that black paint has just as much potential for finely hewn gradations. In the Punch portrait, black skin is distinct from black hair which is distinct from a black background. Marshall’s body of work not only infuses the canon of Western art with a much needed constituency of blackness, it also challenges the assumption that whiteness is the norm rather than another racial category.

Pinboard 4

“Town and Country” part of “Cover Girl” Series, Iké Udé, 1994

This image is part of Nigerian artist, photographer and designer Iké Udé’s 1994 “Cover Girl” series in which he depicted himself in a variety of roles on the cover of a number of popular magazines.  In this image Úde chose “Town & Country” self-described as, “America’s premier lifestyle magazine for the affluent.”   In the image, Udé’s face is painted in a pseudo-tribal manner that leaves much of his face white with stripes left unpainted.  His clothing contrasts somewhat with his face as he wears a tweed jacket, collared shirt and an ascot clearly referencing the style of a gentleman.  Four headlines are printed on the work: “The Noble Savage is Dead”; “What is Art?  Experts Disagree”; “Ex-President Admits to Sodomy”; “Investment Tips for the Novice”; and “Yellow Cab & Their Enemies.”  The headlines highlight the ridiculous nature of the “newsworthy” magazine articles while at the same time illuminating the subtext that can be easily masked in the representational space of a magazine cover.

As a whole, the Cover Girl series brings to the fore the ways in which magazine covers serve as a political space.  As such they purport to be reflective of the mainstream, but as Udé points out, the question of whose mainstream and by what measure such mainstreams are created often results in a deliberate practice of inclusion and exclusion.  As Udé writes, ‘“Cover Girl” is neither a metonymy nor an apologue, but an earnest interrogation of institutionalized Caucasian practices of hegemonic right to name first, to colonize, to mis/represent and other exclusionary practices.”  The use of magazine covers for such an interrogation remains relevant even as we begin to move away from the medium in popular culture.  Thus, Udé’s work draws attention to ways in which concepts such as “mainstream” or “public” exude inclusion while effectively serving as forces of exclusion.

Although we have become increasingly aware on a socio-political level of the ways in which oppression, racism and sexism manifest in areas such as poverty, and education, it is easy to overlook the obvious mechanisms by which such notions continue to circulate.  Udé’s work provides a template for continued interrogation by presenting imagery and text that does not explicitly dictate answers, rather it provides a set of contrasts and juxtapositions that bring attention to the form, content and means by which identities are perpetuated, created and must be questioned.

Sources:

http://nideffer.net/proj/Tvc/artbea/15.Tvc.v9.artbeat.Ude%28CG%29.html

http://www.hearst.com/magazines/town–country.php

 

Pinboard #4: Postcards from the Exotic

This a hand-colored photograph of a river baptism. In the center of the image, two preachers clad in dark red robes attend to a woman in a white dress and bonnet, who is submerged in the water up to her shoulders. To the right, there are several clusters of people, including a group of faithfuls who are waiting with their hands crossed in front of their bodies for their baptism to take place. To the left are two boats, which are conceivably bringing new participants to the ceremony. Crowds of African Americans, several people deep, line the banks of the river. Red lettering printed on the image indicate that this “Genuine Negro Baptism” took place near Norfolk, Virginia in 1918.

I. Stern, Genuine Negro Baptising near Norfolk, Va., 1905–10. International Center of Photography

This object was on view in the International Center for Photography’s 2011  “Take me to the Water” exhibition of vintage postcards of river baptisms in the Mid-West and the South between 1880 and 1930. As the ICP web site explains, religious fundamentalism was widespread in these decades, which brought tremendous social and economic changes to these regions. Postcards of river baptisms circulated both through those individuals who participated in the events, as well as via those who attended as spectators or merely knew of them and saw them as curious spectacles. For river baptisms were a kind of theater that satisfied not only the faithful, but also tourists in search of evidence of homegrown traditions that were at once authentic and exotic.

I wanted to present this image in relation to the horrifying lynching photographs that we encountered through Leigh Raiford’s essay. This postcard is an example of another kind of imagery that commodified black bodies. However, it performs this operation not in a register of violence, but rather one of exotic spirituality that appealed to white consumers of river baptism postcards. The title of the postcard, “Genuine Negro Baptism” captures how river baptisms featuring black subjects were addressed to such beholders as exhibits of authenticity. The postcards, like lynching photographs, provided a vantage point from which to dominate the black body through objectification and primitivization.

Pinboard #3: Life & Language of the Photograph: Eugenic “Family Album” (p. 276)

Page 367, The Crisis, December 1935

Page 367, Featuring and Image of George and Lucille Brantley The Crisis, December 1935

Crisis Cover: Aug-Sep 1951

Lucille Brantley, Crisis Cover: Aug-Sep 1951

In December, 1935, “The Crisis” annual children’s number, amongst Political Cartoons about Texas Lynchings, Ethiopia, and Educational Inequalities, there’s a studio portrait of a little girl and little boy sitting side by side (367).  The caption names them as “George and Lucille Brantley/St. Louis, Mo.”  George, in a sailor inspired outfit, smiles eyes wide, looking directly at the the camera. Lucille, in a dress with short lace sleeves, looks slightly to the right.  Sixteen years later, in August-September 1951 issue we encounter Lucille again.  No longer a child, she is the cover model for the Fortieth Annual Education Number. The biographical information explains that she is the daughter of G.D. Brantley, Principal of Sumner high school, who earned her M.S. degree in June of that year.

The early interrogation of The Crisis in Willis’ “Exposure” and the accompanying quote labelling it as “a kind of eugenic ‘family album’” (275) made me feel a sense of pride and confusion.  While the first photo is one I wasn’t familiar with, I’ve intimately known the second photo most of my life.  I know that in the photos Lucille is 5, and 21.  If you ask her if she remembers sitting for the cover, her answer is “Hell no!! It might just be my graduation photo from grad school” [1].  I know the narrative of her life outside of the photo because she is my Grandmother.  A blown up copy of her cover graces the walls of my grandparents’ house.

The tension of photograph as larger social marker (aspirations/types) vs. family memento helps me understand the multiple lives and languages inherent in photographs of human subjects.  As artifact, the Crisis is digitally available through Google. These photographs are available to anyone with a reasonable internet connection.  Without this action having been done, I would have never seen the photograph of my grandmother with her brother when they were children.  Nor would I have learned about the actions and photographs of their father that the Crisis chronicled throughout his career. For me the Crisis is a family album.
1. Phone Interview, October 26, 2012

Not Your Typical Harem Scene

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.

Jacqueline Marval Les Odalisques 1903

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.” [1] 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 [2]. 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.

Introduction: Framing the Discussion

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587                                                      Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587) Self-Portrait

This week’s class was an exercise in locating- locating ourselves in the course as well as the locating the artists and works we are studying within an art historical narrative. Thus, the focus was primarily on establishing a basic mode of inquiry into the intersection of race, gender and art.  We discussed just what exactly terms such as “gender” mean within the context of the course.   In this week’s text, Gender and Art, Gill Perry provided the following definition of gender: “a cultural construction of femininity and masculinity, as opposed to the biological sex (male or female) which we are born with.” (Perry 8).

One critique of this definition, however, is its failure to locate the notion of gender within any sort of temporal or referential locus.  In the context of the 16th and 17th century, the need for a more rooted conception of gender manifested itself in our viewings of self-portraits created by female artists.  While these portraits by artists such as Catharina de Hemessen, Sophonisba Anguissola and Judith Leyster clearly conveyed culturally constructed elements of gender, they also asserted gender in a manner distinctly rooted in temporal and historical associations not captured by Perry’s conception of gender.

Another component of this week’s discussion was the use of several themes as a means of structuring the discussion and facilitating continued inquiry throughout the course.  These themes were – (re)claiming, looking, portraying, performing and making. In keeping with the notion of “locating” the themes were used to anchor our interpretations by framing the discussion in terms of various notions of “self” (e.g. us as viewers or the artist as creator) and “other” (e.g. diegetic audiences within the works or various external audiences). Thus, each theme enabled both broad and narrow exploration of the ways in which identity (meaning sense of self) is formulated, presented, projected, perceived and interpreted by artists and viewers alike.

– Jess Newman