On Planning an Exhibition:
Autobiography: In Her Own Image
The idea for the exhibition Autobiography grew out of a series of paintings I had been developing since late 1986 in an attempt to probe more deeply some of the issues that I had touched upon in my videotape Free, White and 21. As a result of this ongoing work, I decided to organize an exhibition of work by women artists of color and invited eighteen artists to create a private view of themselves through visual statement.
Being a woman of color, I have experienced directly the omission and under-representation of works by woman of color. I have also noted how people of color and their history and culture are being appropriated, distorted, and used as images and points of focus by white artists while artists of color are excluded from “speaking” visually, interpreting themselves on the same platform. “Women’s” exhibitions organized by white feminists or “concerned” curators are often 95–100 percent white. Most white women sensitive to their own plight are curiously silent and insensitive to the omission.
The artists in my exhibition are from multiracial and, in some cases, overlapping and interwoven heritages. Their vision and tools of visual expression are not always bound to paint on canvas, nor do they reflect autobiographical themes punched from the Euro-ethnic male template of the “academy.”
The initial selection of artists for the exhibition was difficult, as there were too many who would be excluded. I did not wish to focus on a particular medium such as photography or sculpture, although patterns and synchronicity of expression emerged. I also did not wish to focus on artists whose work would reassure the “art world” that we want to emulate them, mirror or reinforce their stereotypes. Autobiography, therefore, presents a view of artists of color interpreting themselves in the context of their choice, which may not be particularly pleasing to the dominant culture. The work is neither neutered nor devoid of personal references to gender, race, and class or paradox, conflict, and celebration.
The artists met in my studio to share ideas about the exhibition and decided as a group to present the title on the cover of a catalogue in the language of our various ancestors. Some felt strongly about “political” issues, while others did not. It was my hope that discussions would generate further contact between the artists to counteract some of the isolation and competition that the “art establishment” has fostered. During the first meeting, I shared excerpts from my journal notes, which reflected my thought process while grappling with my own autobiographical series. Excerpts from my notes included some of the following thoughts:
Definition of self in a siege, Euro-ethnically-biased culture.
Miscegenation: hidden United States history.
The legacy of my mixed heritage: African, Native American, European: enslaver and enslaved.
Which women of color I identify with for my standard of appearance: women of color from the United States; European identified women of color; women of color from other cultures?
Hierarchy and the use of images of people of color in the media and their placement on the page.
What kind of social interaction are they portrayed as having with other people of color and people of European descent?
Are they placed at the top of the page, behind a crowd, in the center (but alone), near the edges, at the bottom?
Are they portrayed as exceedingly small or large? What role is being played? Is it a stereotype?
The brutality of omission and appropriation.
Use of omission as a form of censorship; First Amendment rights for whom?
Critique of criticism: when and if our work is written about, what type of words are selected to describe our work?
Psychological assault and stereotyping through language and visual juxtapositions in the news.
The following is a booklist which helped to clarify some of my thinking about the ideas for each work.
Rasheed Araeen, Making Myself Visible (London: Kala Press, 1984).
Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983).
bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1984).
Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis, Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (Boston: South End Press, 1981).
Asiba Tupahache, Taking Another Look (New York: Spirit of January Publications, 1986).
Excerpted from Autobiography: In Her Own Image (New York: INTAR Latin American Gallery, 1988).