Black and White Gaze

Cammy Thomas at the Country Park mural in Greensboro, 2019

Their perspective and voices are not being heard. Traditionally when Black women were portrayed, it was through the white man’s eye and didn’t truly capture the beauty, value, or Black experience of a woman. Showcasing Black female artists is important not only because we are already neglected; our story has been lost and retold through eyes that are not ours. Only a Black woman can explain what it’s like to be a Black woman.

Mickalene Thomas, Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2011, rhinestones, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel, 108 x 144 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest). Thomas re-created the traditional image of the Three Graces, familiar from Greek mythology. The Graces are presented in art-historical iconography as three women, representing conventional values of charm, beauty, and creativity.

Visual artist Calida Rawles relates her work to the Black female identity, saying: “I wanted to discuss the intersectionality of the black female experience, as well as the theory of triple consciousness, which stipulates that black women in this country view themselves through three lenses: the American experience, largely defined by white men; the female experience, generally written by white women; and the black experience, usually associated with black men. To make work, for me, is to seek a kind of spiritual healing from all of that.”

As a Black woman myself, I didn’t realize I viewed myself through those lenses until I read Rawles’s interview aloud. If our voices and experiences are not shared, they become lost or retold by someone who is not us. The loss of the Black woman is the most tragic story of them all, yet it has strong main characters who won’t stop until the job’s done.

As a practicing artist myself, I relate so much to the idea that it’s not about being ignored but about having the agenda to make a difference and change the world rather than just have commercial success that most others strive for.

Cammy Thomas, Flow & Mesh, 2019, acrylic paints and water on canvas, Courtesy of the artist

Black female artists have given me lots of inspiration and fuel to my fire to develop more work that relates to my Black experience and finding who I truly am as an artist. The amount of work these women and many others have done for us to be where we are has been tremendous, but still more needs to be done. Black women are slowly being acknowledged more in this industry, and while that is a great step, according to a study from the Public Library of Science, “A recent survey of the permanent collections of 18 prominent U.S. art museums found that the represented artists are 87% male and 85% white.”

Step one in the process of showcasing more artists of color is developing more programs for success with the proper funding to help build them. Money controls a lot of things, and without it, people are left struggling. The battle to make a difference and a name for yourself will never be easy, but I have so much confidence in women of color, due to all that we have accomplished in spite of setbacks. May we continue to prosper and grow.

Before developing this post for my internship at the NCMA, I also curated a YouTube playlist of mostly female artists to represent certain pieces in the Museum’s African collection. Curator of African Art Amanda M. Maples and I discussed how the showing of the pieces doesn’t do justice for the viewers or the work itself. The secular and sacred headdresses and outfits were once in a lively, festival-like setting, and now they are sitting in a quiet museum. Without the dances and upbeat people, it can be difficult to fully connect with what the piece symbolizes. Incorporating music can help viewers get a sense of connection to the piece, plus a new song to jam to. Read more about a few pieces from the collection and see the playlist on my blog site

Cammy Thomas
Cammy Thomas is a curatorial intern at the NCMA.

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