by Elizabeth Turner, Nasher Museum student intern
Each work of art in Exposing the Gaze: Gender and Sexuality in Art exhibition at the Nasher Museum is challenging in some way. Often the works are challenging simply because of its graphic visual content; each piece dares its viewer to consider the motive of the artist in creating the work and asks the viewer to question their own gaze and think about the way they are receiving the messages of the works.
One piece that really caught my eye, and that I kept thinking about for hours after viewing the exhibition, was Lovely Six Foota, a photograph by Mickalene Thomas (2007). In this photo, an African American woman is lounged on a couch. Her legs slightly apart and her high-heeled feet trailing outwards from there. Her arms are draped comfortably over the retro pillows, and her floral, flowing dress perfectly matches the rest of the 70’s-inspired décor in the room.
The most striking part of this photograph, and probably the reason it was chosen to be included in this exhibition, is the powerful stare on the woman’s face. The woman gazes directly at the camera, and in turn gazes directly at us, the viewers. As the viewer looks at the photograph, the woman on the couch looks right back. While the viewer inquisitively studies her expression, the woman in Lovely Six Foota is not inquisitively studying anything. In fact, the she is assured, even defiant. Her chin is ever so slightly tilted upwards, daring us to meet her gaze. Her left eyebrow is raised, adding another element to her challenging expression.
What does the woman’s powerful gaze mean? And how does it relate to the 70s-inspired décor of the room? These elements are perhaps a nod to the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Black Power grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, and was seen as “a doctrine that emphasizes black nationalism and self-reliance.” Lovely Six Foota was created in 2007, over thirty years after the start of the Black Power Movement, but is a visual throwback. Maybe Thomas wants the viewer to question the rights and station of African American women living today and, perhaps, even if the rights of African Americans living in America today have greatly improved since the 1970s. The question then becomes: has the gaze of society upon African Americans truly changed?
Image: Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007. C-print; 19 x 23 3/8 inches. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Gift of Christen and Derek Wilson, 2010.12.1. Image courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, LLC.