By Kathleen Vanesian
By Amy Silverman
By Robrt L. Pela
By Jim Louvau
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Benjamin Leatherman
By New Times
By Becky Bartkowski
The October 10 cover of Time magazine boldly proclaims the advent of a black renaissance here in America. The cover declares that "African-American artists are truly free at last"--at least in an aesthetic sense.
But photographer Ren‚e Cox, an African-American artist from New York, would probably take great issue with that. In fact, the feisty, dreadlocked Cox would probably label the declaration pure media hype. For the artist, whose "Yo Mama and Cross-Masks" show recently opened at deCompression Gallery, the battle against black stereotypes and deeply ingrained racism in the American psyche still rages with white-hot intensity.
The deCompression invitation announcing Cox's show in Phoenix underscores just how deeply the racist current still runs in this society and, quite notably, here in the Valley of the Sun. The gallery's black-and-white postcard featured a photograph of the 35-year-old artist, titled "Yo Mama," in which Cox stands completely nude against a black-velvet backdrop, high-heeled feet planted firmly apart, her unsmiling face staring defiantly out at the viewer. Cox holds her 5-year-old son, whose lighter skin contrasts with her own darker hue. Your typical Madonna and child the photo is not. It was Cox's own 5-year-old who originally christened her "Yo Mama." "That line comes from my life," explains Cox. "My kid said that to me, and my kid comes from a loving, racially mixed home where blackness is appreciated. And he doesn't watch the 6 o'clock news, either. This disrespect is not coming from my house--it comes from society at large."
There's no arguing that Cox's "Yo Mama" photograph is pointblank confrontational, not to mention attention-getting. And attention it did get, though not the type that an African-American artist newly anointed "free at last" would expect.
"The ad was placed in various magazines, including Planet [an alternative cultural magazine based in Tempe]," says Cox. "Most of the phone calls we received in response to the ad image were positive. What was quite shocking to me is that we had one phone call from some nut who said, 'What's that nigger bitch doing in this magazine?' and, 'You stupid white guy,' referring to deCompression Gallery owner Michael Levine. 'How could you show this?' He just went off and was sort of relentless about it."
Her invitation portrait aside, Cox's "Cross-Masks" multimedia installation at deCompression is heady stuff, visually arresting and conceptually complex. A primordial, junglelike ambiance is set up by a video monitor suspended from the ceiling and aimed at the floor; it continuously runs footage created by the artist of a Senegalese dancer whose body is painted with zebralike stripes. Quirky, truncated images of flailing arms, legs and a face loom, then recede, on the screen, while drums throb remorselessly in the background. Cox explained to me that the dance being performed was from west Africa and was traditionally used to put ceremonial participants into a trancelike state.
In the center portion of the gallery, large photo constructions depicting grotesque, masklike faces are hung from the ceiling, then tethered to the floor. Called "photo-sculptures" by Cox, each photographic montage, which can be viewed from both sides, is made from four separate shots of facial features. The photo-sculptures are placed randomly throughout the gallery, like trees growing in a forest.
Cox's ominous photo "masks" are juxtaposed against a wall on which hang old masks used by the Ibo and Ibibio tribes indigenous to the cross-river section of southeast Nigeria. Spare, but elegant in their design and execution, these masks are ritual objects. "They're called 'ugly masks,'" says Cox. "They're used for various ceremonies, and are meant to scare; they're meant to intimidate. That's what I try to do with my photography, as well," she says.
On a facing wall, Cox has nailed a large American flag she has modified by painting all but one of its white stripes black; only two of its stars remain white. This is Cox's version of the traditional Stars and Stripes: "I felt I had to represent the amount of labor, the sweat, the blood that was put into this damn country [by black people] working for free, without any reparation. We didn't even get forty acres and a mule. To be fair, I left one white stripe and two white stars--I felt it needed a little bit of reworking," she says, laughing.
The only discernible break in the spell cast by Cox's installation is a heavy-handed wall text attributed to Amilcar Cabral, an African freedom fighter. Although Cabral's ideas about the inalienable right of all people to have their own history are palatable, the text's Marxist-flavored rhetoric about liberation from foreign domination dilutes the mystery that elevates "Cross-Masks" above pure political pedagogy. Like the antique masks she has carefully lined up on the wall, Cox's photographic versions are--and are purposely meant to be--disturbing, provocative and ultimately transformative. Not unlike the artist herself, they lie somewhere between an ancient African and new American cultural past, carved from both the visual and spiritual richness of African heritage and the American legacy of slavery, which continues in the guise of an ongoing battle for civil rights in this country. In Cox's words, her mask images are ". . . about a celebration of blackness."