On The Subject of Women

     Currently on view at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) until October 21st is Afro-Atlantic Histories   

works by over 200 artists, spanning the 16th century to the present day. The exhibit centers on the experience of the African Diaspora from the African continent, to the Caribbean, the Americas, Europe and back, through the lens of both their individual experiences and the gaze of outsiders. The collection pieces together the story of, what Paul Gilroy terms, the “Black Atlantic,” a geography of diaspora, where the lack of precise geographical boundaries reveals parallelism of lived experiences, shared trauma. the inheritance of a lifeblood steering our cultural compass on a global scale. 

     My time during my residency in Brazil has predominantly centered around the cross-cultural comparison of the experiences of women across these regions: How they are different? But more importantly, how are they the same? While all women were deprived of individual agency and political power, black women, specifically, were subjugated to an additional social hierarchy enforced by white and white-passing women, informed by the dynamics of power and sexuality (and power wielded through sexuality) constructed by the colonial male. Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre noted a popular saying in his time that dictated the hierarchy that divided women in society: Branca para casar, mulata para fornicar, negra para trabalhar, or,  “White women for marrying, a mulata for sex, a black woman for work. Although attributed to the nation Freyre called home, the sentiment is by no means unique to Brazil, can be found canonized in much of the “classic” literature of the Atlantic region. The characterization of women many times revolved around their roles as wife, mistress, or mammy and the relative proximity to a man. This was both advanced and subverted by the artists in the exhibition.

     What immediately draws one to this painting is how pretty it is: the warm Earth tones of green, brown, orange and red, the elegant simplicity of a composition made of a girl, flowers, the gentle tilt of ahead. While the Mulata from Cartagena occupies the center of the frame, her chest is just about at the midpoint of the canvas and the low-cut top, exposed nipples (while not inherently sexual) become the work’s focal point, described by MASP curators as “abundant and opulent”, but is as adequately described as gratuitous. In the image, she looks to the side, her interest piqued in someone other than the painter, the bouquet of flowers she might have been holding as part of the portrait are now placed hastily, perhaps distractedly, on her lower stomach all reinforcing an underlying narrative of fertility and promiscuity.

     Though Araujo is Colombian, the subject of the painting is from the country’s Afro-Colombian capital, Cartagena, the image was reminiscent of namesake character Gabriela in Brazilian novelist, Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. 

     Gabriela is extolled for her abilities to cook, clean, and perform well in bed. Her servitude to her lover/employer and later husband “Mr. Nacib” (who she calls by this title even after being married) is a domestic fantasy that echoes in Araujo’s painting with his subject holding a water pot to be heated. At many points in the novel, her character is almost entirely wooden, a fantastical object onto which Amaado and the reader can project male desire. 

     Gilberto Hernandez Ortega was a Dominican painter and poet who first studied under Celeste Woss y Gil (1890-1985) at her private academy. He eventually graduate from the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, again studying with Woss y Gil, a painter known for her nude portraits of the female form. Ortega is classified primarily as a Surrealist, but he also included elements of expressionism in his work. The convergence of his surrealist style with the influence of Woss y Gil’s gaze on the feminine form likely contributed to his stunning depiction of a black woman in Merchanta, 1976.  

     The most initially striking element is the dark skin of the stunning merchanta, so dark that she duly occupies both the foreground and the nighttime scene occuring in the background. Her long neck is reminiscent of the Modigliani portraiture included in the permanent collection on the floor above, but the addition, and then manipulation, of a prominent clavicle region (the collarbone and cleavage, in this case) while emphasized doesn't eroticize her or her body. He infuses regality into the gaze of the working-class, dark-skinned woman, subverting the "Negra Para Trabalhar" of Freyre’s reality. If the wicker basket with vegetables and florals on her head are her wares, she suffers no loss of dignity from peddling or carrying them.

      This painting immediately recalled Rihanna’s September 2018 British Vogue cover. It’s well-documented that Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty does (and can be) whatever the fuck she wants, but recently she’s creative-directed a litany of unorthodox cover concepts for herself (DAZED, Allure), putting her natural beauty on display, largely unmanipulated by contoured-makeup or hair extensions, a departure from Robyn “Rihanna” “The Essence of Fuck” Fenty, as decreed by Esquire magazine in 2013 when voted Sexiest Woman of the Year. The Vogue cover depicts her and her body as art, in the same way as the merchanta; in both cases, a floral arrangement-turned-crown is used to emphasize the beauty and elegance of the subject beyond her capacity for sexuality.

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