Show explores race and beauty
Written by Ursula Ehrhardt
A similar version appeared in The Daily Times
Princess Anne.--Nina I. Buxenbaum and Zoë Charlton both address questions of identity, femininity and race in the exhibition, “Fair and Lovely,” on view at the Mosely Gallery, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, through March 15.
The artists, who are African-American (Buxenbaum also identifies herself as bi-racial), consider different aspects of these issues. Buxenbaum is more concerned in exploring questions of personal identity, especially the relationship of her bi-racial self to her black self (or to the black side of herself most visible to others).
To do so, she uses the image of the “Topsy-Turvey” doll, which originated in the antebellum South. The doll wears a long skirt and is reversible, with a different head and upper body at each end. Originally each end represented a different race and identity (such as white mistress and black slave), while the other end remained hidden beneath the skirt.
Buxenbaum shows both ends of the “Topsy-Turvy” doll: One end is bi-racial and the other end is black. These “dueling images,” as Buxenbaum describes them, also address “some of the complexities of identity that go beyond race.” In “Conversation,” for example, Buxenbaum’s two selves gaze intently at one another in an attitude of confrontation or mutual questioning; whereas in “Playing” the bi-racial self aggressively pulls apart the black self’s intricately braided hair-do. “Stranglehold” is even more aggressive, showing the bi-racial self attacking the black self.
In “The Real Me?” the Topsy-Turvy dual self is positioned under a flowering tree in early spring. Both women—or selves—wear headscarves, perhaps a sign of their mutual accommodation. The bi-racial self seems more relaxed and at ease, while the black self reaches out to her in a gesture signaling either play or disruption.
Other Topsy-Turvy images, such as the large charcoal drawing, “Opening,” depict two different women, perhaps a reference to the idea that we develop our identity in relation to “others.” The image also recalls Walt Whitman’s famous line, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” from the poem, “Song of Myself.”
Several of Buxenbaum’s drawings show two different women—one white and one black—reaching out and gently touching each other’s hair in a gesture that conveys mutual appreciation, acceptance, and desire for understanding and reconciliation.
Zoë Charlton’s works address questions of race in relation to concepts of femininity, beauty and skin color. An example is her video, titled “R60,” which depicts a strong-bodied black woman with short-cropped hair who seems to stand for black people in general.
We see her stepping into a bathtub and then vigorously scrubbing herself, as if trying to remove a stain. As we watch, the bath water becomes ever darker. Only after seeing the video a second time do we realize that the woman left a dark paint smudge—the same color as her skin—on the tub’s edge as she eased herself into it; and that the bath water was, in fact, colored by this dark paint.
The video thus poses a paradox, suggesting that black skin color is a superficial trait that, like paint, can be disregarded or ‘washed away;’ even as it persists, profoundly affecting how one is seen and treated in the larger white culture.
Charlton also addresses skin color in her representations of well-dressed women who resemble fashion plates (or paper dolls) in her series, "we'll have a black one one day." The artist has carefully rendered the women’s clothing, but not their skin, which is painted in a deliberately crude manner.
Is Charlton implying that these women are wearing ‘borrowed’ clothes and can never achieve the white cultural ideal of beauty promoted by the fashion plates? Or is she suggesting that black women can only attain this ideal by acting or becoming ‘white’ in all but skin color (which they can’t change)?
This is a challenging, thought-provoking exhibition that raises important questions about race and identity. To learn more, take the opportunity to meet the artists at a reception in their honor at the Mosely Gallery, February 23, from 6 to 8 p.m.
IF YOU GO "FAIR AND LOVELY" ART EXHIBITION
Where: Mosely Gallery, Arts and Technologies Center, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Princess Anne
When: Through March 15
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday
Reception with the artists: 4-6 p.m. Thursday