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 Rene 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."
"Collectively, I call these pieces 'bongo men,'" says Cox. "Bongo men were part of the Mau Mau, who were Kenyan freedom fighters back in the Fifties who rose up against British colonial rule. They were the first people who were conscious of blackness and really asserted themselves in that direction.
"And it's also a tribute to the Maroons," she continues. Maroons were fugitive black slaves and their descendants living in the West Indies during the 17th and 18th centuries, runaway plantation slaves who sought freedom in inhospitable Caribbean mountains and forests known as "cockpit country."
The Jamaica-born Cox, who attended private Catholic school, boarding school and eventually public school in the elite New York suburb of Scarsdale, is pragmatic about her African cultural connections, which appear worlds away from her American educational upbringing. "Obviously, living here in the States and having gone through its educational system, I'm not sitting in some back room carving out wooden masks for ceremonies I'm not really a part of," says the artist. "But I am able to take a new medium like photography, one that's only 150 years old, and still create things that are quite similar, that evoke the same kind of feelings." Rene Cox's art, which has been shown at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and a number of well-known galleries in Los Angeles, Boston and New York, including L.A.'s G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, is not afraid of colliding head-on with issues of race and history that even African Americans often refuse to broach. To the artist's way of thinking, information about the atrocities of slavery and the real role of the black person in building America has been suppressed. This assertion is particularly noteworthy in view of a recent furor created in Williamsburg, Virginia, when several black actors re-created a historically based slave auction, much to the horror and protestation of members of the NAACP, who claimed that the dramatization was denigrating to African Americans. "Nobody talks about it," says Cox. "And it's interesting to me that even African Americans don't really want to talk about it to a large extent . . . as Jewish people have their Holocaust museum, we need to have our African Holocaust museum, as well."
According to Cox, hope for a truly multicultural future rests with education: "If you can be reeducated--not even reeducated, but just educated--as to what happened, there's hope. Because the stereotypes about black folks, especially African-American men, are so harsh, and they still exist to this day . . . a lot of this is being perpetuated by black people, as well, because they're not in touch with what's really happening, because we're so manipulated by the media, anyway."
Nowadays, the world is very short of heroes, those committed human beings in history raised to almost mythological status. Like most Americans, African Americans search for those heroic forefathers through which they can define themselves. Like every other cultural group, they seek predecessors who have waged great wars on the side of God and forged great lives in spite of adversity.
Renee Cox's art seems to be a move forward in the African-American search for those godlike heroes--a step in the direction of being truly free at last.