Janet Marquardt-Cherry’s “B(l)ack Talk: African American Women’s Confrontational Art”

In Janet T. Marquardt-Cherry’s 2000 article “B(l)ack Talk: African American Women’s Confrontational Art,” the author explores transgressive photographs by female American artists. The artists’ juxtaposition of confrontational text and (seemingly) factual photographic image overtly confronts issues of derogatory representations and perceptions of African Americans. Moreover, the art’s directness makes the embedded message available to all viewers without a need for prior knowledge of the iconography, allowing it to reach a broader audience. This faculty is important especially with respect to the bell hooks quote presented in conjunction with the article: Marquardt-Cherry references bell hooks’ 2003 In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life affirmation of photographs’ important role in affirming black people’s identities and dispelling stereotypical representations. The bold artworks examined demonstrate through direct confrontation the African American condition in the 1980s and 1990s, and, more importantly, the role European Americans play in the construction of racial inequality.

Warning against what she calls “Holocaust Syndrome,” in which viewers find dated images irrelevant, the author persists to address the overt presentations by Pat Ward Williams in Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock (1987). The black and white image from Life magazine contrasted with the blackboard border emphasizes the image’s didactic value. The scrawls on the blackboard demand “Who took this picture?” and “Somebody do something,” driving viewers to answer or respond. Similarly, What You Lookin’ At (1992) returns the gaze and questions the voyeurism imposed on African Americans, requiring viewers’ reevaluation of the spectacle of the black person.

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Pat Ward Williams, “Accused Blowtorch Padlock,” 1986, Courtesy of the artist, via http://www.reframingphotography.com/content/pat-ward-williams
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Detail of Pad Ward Williams’ “Accused Blowtorch Padlock,” 1986, via Kameelahwrites at http://www.kameelahwrites.com/2008/01/

Lorna Simpson’s 1989 Guarded Conditions also addresses the viewer’s gaze with six black women in what may be dressing gowns, facing away from us. The text at the work’s lower edge recites repeatedly “Sex Attacks Skin Attacks,” casting viewers as potential predators because of the assault inflicted on African American women based on their race and gender.

Carrie Mae Weems’ Mirror, Mirror (1987) introduces fairy tales: the mirror mocks the black woman’s question, “Who’s the finest of them all?” with a jarringly blunt “Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!” reaffirming the black woman’s inferior place in society. The magical authority’s sparkling silver star recalls Cinderella, suggesting that the black woman can only be beautiful if absolved from the cinder that covers her skin and transformed into a porcelain white princess.

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Pat Ward Williams, “Accused Blowtorch Padlock,” 1986, Courtesy of the artist, via http://www.reframingphotography.com/content/pat-ward-williams

“Pretend not to know what you know” superimposed on the images in Adrian Piper’s triptych Pretend #2 from 1990 also demands a reconsideration of the roles we play in constructing racial inequality. On opposite sides of the center, largest picture of a happy upper-middle-class white woman and child are photographs of impoverished, disheveled women of color and their children. Marquardt-Cherry interprets the center image as a potential mirror to the majority of its privileged viewers, while the side panels allude to sensationalism and the public interest in sad stories. Piper demands viewers reevaluate the responses to the sensationalism that drive actions of guilt like donating and praying.

Lastly, the author examines the unsettling visual contrast between the devilish, black male predator labeled “Poison” and the swooning, ideal white American female in Piper’s 1986 Vanilla Nightmares #8. In congruence with Lucy Lippard’s analysis in Mixed Blessings: New Art in Multicultural America, Marquardt-Cherry explains that the text reinforces the roles of the antagonistic black man and the enchanted white woman in an eroticized, dangerous encounter.


 

This summary, an assignment for a Gender and Visual Studies class, is a response to Janet T. Marquardt-Cherry’s “B(l)ack Talk: African American Women’s Confrontational Art,” published in Exposure, Vol.33, No. 1/2 (2000).

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