Cinema Remixed & Reloaded:Black Women Artists and the Moving Image since 1970
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston
Through January 4, 2009
by Katie Geha
Upon entering The Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image since 1970 presents the viewer with a large 16mm projected image of young boys dressed in suits, floating under water, attempting a game of basketball. Tracy Rose’s The Wailers (2004) introduces the viewer to a sense of uneasy immersion that the mediums of video and film often require. The push and pull of the figures as they move through water, bubbles rising from their mouths, is not unlike the experience of viewing the films and videos on exhibition—it demands a large amount of attention and patience and, at times, can be emotionally taxing. To extend the metaphor even further, this seminal exhibition of black female video and film artists will leave you gasping for air.
Just to the left of the entrance, Jessica Ann Peavy’s five-channel video fully encapsulates the subject of the exhibition. Her hilarious video installation (yes, race and gender can be funny) Note to Self: There’s a Hot Sauce Stain on My Gucci Bag (2006) plays on accepted characterizations of black women, as each monitor shows a triptych of images and a female speaker taking on a variety of roles. Speaking with tongue firmly in cheek, one character discusses straightening her black hair, another arches her back and sticks out her backside while commenting on the objectification of black women’s bodies, while a different character approaches the screen, licks her lips and seductively states “Popeye’s chicken n’ biscuits? Oh no, I don’t eat that.” Each video loops, weaving in on itself, creating a cacophony of voices, the high-pitched cry, “Booty! Booty!” playing out across the gallery over and over.
Peavy’s dissection of stereotypes makes use of the inherent reflexivity of her medium— video. As Rosalind Krauss argued in 1976, the video monitor acts as a mirror, uses the human psyche as a conduit, and reflects concurrently the reception and projection of the image. Thus, in this exhibition, “black woman video artist” is not just a category that denotes the artist’s gender and race. Rather, it is the very subject matter that each of these artists confronts: “What does it mean to be a black woman today?”
One way to answer such a question is through the harnessing of stereotypes. When it is executed well, as in Lauren Kelley’s Big Gurl (2006), a campy stop-motion animation of black Barbies’ bodies that morph into frantically generated claymation boobs and butts, this confrontation of the status quo successfully reveals the variety of layers that are inherent to any stereotype. However, in other works, for instance several videos that use blackface, such commentary skirts the dangerous line of reifying a stereotype, rather than breaking it down.
Other artists in the exhibition focus on how black women are portrayed in popular (white) media. Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hilberg, in Lip (1999), critique cinematic representations of black women by mashing together a variety of scenes from movies that depict black female slaves or servants “mouthing off” to the white people they work for. Meanwhile, Jocelyn Taylor deftly defies cinéma vérité by playing with Jean-Luc Godard’s Armide. While Godard’s film centers on females worshipping male body-builders, Taylor presents a sweet and strange story about the adoration of black women body-builders. Finally, Elizabeth Axtman, an incredible young artist, exhibits American Classics (2005) a video of herself lip-synching scenes from films that deal with what it means to be mixed-race in America. Fully inhabiting these various roles and facing the viewer head-on, Axtman simply and powerfully engages with the complexity that issues of race demand.
Axtman is also responsible for the most resonant video in the exhibition, Expletives Owned (2007). A small screen imbedded in the gallery wall shows repeating courtroom footage of the 1992 Jeffrey Dahmer hearing. In the short clip, Rita Isbell, sister of victim Errol Lindsey, walks out from behind the courtroom podium and lunges at Dahmer screaming expletives that were blanked out for national TV airing. Axtman fills the gaps with similar expletives spoken by black comedians Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Bernie Mac. The appropriation of the two, comedy and courtroom drama, is jarring and bizarre. Yet, the repetition of the clip turns Isbell’s frightening rage into a cathartic event. Dahmer’s eyes remain downcast as, shaking and out of control, she calls him by his first name: “Never again Jeffrey! Never!” It is impossible to look away.
Cinema Remixed & Reloaded is skillfully installed with a variety of closed off rooms for viewing longer videos. And while it is certainly a noisy exhibition, such a massive array of videos and voices reminds the viewer of the colossal amount of work that is being done by black female video and film artists (especially by young artists— the number of artists exhibiting here under the age of 30 is astounding). The curators, Valerie Cassel Oliver and Dr. Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, complete the survey by including early groundbreaking video artists such as Adrian Piper, Julie Dash and Howardena Pindell. The exhibition is not arranged chronologically, rather, it seems to flow organically and refuses any concrete formal categorization.
However, the one organizing principle of the exhibition—that the artists be black, female and working in video or film, is a difficult categorization. As curator Hazma Walker has noted, “Race is no less mercurial and complex as an organizing principle for an exhibition than it is a tricky issue in general. Just as one might ask what, one might also ask where is race.” Due to Oliver and Brownlee’s refusal to neatly organize this exhibition to make these unwieldy themes easier to digest, a specific location or definition of “black woman” will not be found in these darkened galleries. Instead, after hours of viewing these videos and films, something much more truthful emerges—race and gender not as specific categories but, rather, as points in which to explore messy implications and fraught contradictions.
Katie Geha is pursuing a Ph.D. in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin.