Dreams of Defiance: Black Feminist Fantasy and the Direct Gaze
Online Student Project
Dreams of Defiance: Black Feminist Fantasy and the Direct Gaze is a multi-media project by Ashleigh Smith, Duke Class of 2020. Originally planned as an installation of works from the museum’s collection for the Academic Focus Gallery, this project moved online when the museum closed temporarily in March 2020 for health and safety reasons.
This project is an extension of Ashleigh’s senior honors thesis, “A Self-Defined Sex Being: Self-Portraiture as Black Feminist Fantasy for the Purpose of Liberation”. Under the mentorship of Duke Professors Jasmine Cobb, Ph.D., Richard J. Powell, Ph.D., and Adriane Lentz-Smith, Ph.D., Ashleigh worked on this project for nearly two years. Dreams of Defiance: Black Feminist Fantasy and the Direct Gaze was facilitated through Ashleigh’s curatorial internship at the Nasher Museum—a core component of her Concentration in Museum Theory & Practice and part of her major in art history.
A Steady & Intent Look
This selection of works, many of them from the Nasher Museum’s collection, examines the role of the gaze in black female portraiture. Defined as “a steady and intent look,” the “gaze” within the context of art history often refers to the power dynamics at play when the male artist is cast as active protagonist and the female body as his passive subject. This issue becomes further compounded when race enters the picture. Traditionally, when black women have been subject to the direct gaze, their ability to look, to define themselves and their relation to the world around them, is further restricted.
Featuring the self-portraits of contemporary black women artists, including LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zanele Muholi, and Carrie Mae Weems, this online exhibition highlights work in which the power of the gaze is wielded by the black female subject. Challenging past portraiture that objectifies female bodies through submissive poses and positions, the direct gaze beheld in these assertive self-portraits visually confronts the viewer as an intentional act of defiance. The images bring to light the historical erasure of black women from our shared visual culture.
Self-portraits by black women artists are juxtaposed with earlier works by Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, as well as contemporary representations of black women by artists such as Andy Warhol. This exhibition seeks to track the cultural, political, and artistic currents that influence these black women’s self-representations. The desire to move black women artists from the margins to the center of art historical study is a black feminist approach. By analyzing these works through the scholarship of Patricia Hill Collins, Marsha Meskimmon, and Lisa Gail Collins, this installation seeks to demonstrate how black feminism can create critical and original art historical narratives.
Defiant Gaze: Zanele Muholi
In her self-portrait, Zanele Muholi brazenly stares out at the viewer as a means of calling attention to herself. This photograph is part of a series created by Muholi to document and comment upon the violence suffered by LGBTQIA+ individuals within her native South Africa. The deflated tire wrapped around her head and neck refers to incidents when queer black community members were burned by tires set ablaze. In response to the traditional powerlessness of black women, the artist’s justice-minded commentary relies upon the force of the defiant gaze. She intensifies the darkness of her skin color in order to reclaim her blackness, to center her black identity within the pictorial frame, as well as the narrative she strives to tell. By staring directly at the viewer, Muholi positions herself as subject and creator, shaping the narrative as she sees it, acting as a voice for herself and others.
These two paintings serve as examples of portraits of black women painted during the 1800s. Notice that neither woman looks directly at the viewer. Both women also reveal their breast to the viewer, highlighting the sexual nature of their portrayal. Viewed against these two examples, Muholi’s direct gaze and fully covered body may reflect intentional choices on the part of the artist to work against traditional representations.
Object & Spectator
This print by Pablo Picasso (above, left) exemplifies the active gaze of the male artist who has objectified and sexualized the female form throughout much of the history of art. Known for fragmenting the human form, Picasso manipulates his model’s body to reveal her breasts and bottom to the viewer. His decision to highlight the nude model’s twisted form, rather than the painter is telling. The model’s eyes glance away from the artist informing viewers that she has no say in how she is represented. Her non-confrontational gaze serves as a foil to the defiant stares of the black women artists featured in this exhibition.
This work (above, right), part of Carrie Mae Weems’s Not Manet’s Type series demonstrates the artist’s awareness of conventional portrayals of women throughout history. Her back is turned to the camera, creating an object-spectator relationship between her body and the audience—similar to the dynamic between the painter and the model in Picasso’s Le pientre et son modèle. However, Weems’s captions make it clear that her self-positioning as an object to be looked at is meant to critique this common dynamic within art history.
In this diptych, Carrie Mae Weems explores issues of identity formation through doubling. As she holds the mirror to her face, gazing at her reflection, she contemplates the “what so terrified you?” in the work’s title. As she regards herself in the mirror, she is “twice” doubled—through her reflection in the mirror and across the diptych. This doubling is a visual representation of her “doubled consciousness.”
Established by social theorist W.E.B. DuBois in his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “double-consciousness” describes the internal conflict many people on the margins of society face as they work to reconcile their own self-image with that of the image imposed on them by those occupying a more dominant position. As Weems gazes at her reflection in the mirror, she confronts the image of herself that she sees, as well as the terrifying reflection forced upon her by the outside world. It is a moment of contemplation and conflict. Weems’s gaze as the creator and the subject of the work provides her with the ability to name the oppressive fear that often goes unsaid. Naming this oppression and contemplating it, rather than submitting to it, is the defiant act of the artist. As a black woman, she knows society’s expectation for her to accept the status quo and play her assigned role. Intentionally ignoring this, Weems disrupts societal expectations, making the viewer stop and contemplate them alongside her.
Disrupting the Canon
As an anonymous collective of feminist artists, the Guerrilla Girls utilize text and humor for public installations to expose race-based and gender-based bias within the art world. This political poster by the Guerrilla Girls speaks to the real-world consequences of the works of art in this exhibition. This poster lists the names of well-known women artists and artists of color in order to demonstrate that one could buy “at least one work” by all of them for the $17.7 million spent on a single painting by white male artist Jasper Johns. From an art world perspective, this poster points to the vast inequities driving black women’s self-portraiture, their desire to self-represent, and their fight for visibility. As works that seek to disrupt the art historical canon, the works in this exhibition echo the sentiments expressed in the Guerrilla Girls’ posters.
In this episode of the Nasher Museum Podcast, you’re listening to Ashleigh Smith, Duke Class of 2020, who majored in art history with a Concentration in Museum Theory & Practice. She talks about her senior honors thesi...
Duration 5m 39s Published
I feel so grateful to have started my art historical education at Duke with the Nasher, given how diverse the collection is.Ashleigh Smith, Duke Class of 2020
About the Student Curator
Ashleigh Smith, Duke Class of 2020, majored in art history with a Concentration in Museum Theory & Practice. She has been a member of MUSE, the Nasher Museum’s student executive board, and also Duke’s Black Student Alliance. She is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow. This spring, Ashleigh was honored for her work promoting social equity and justice at the university through her passion for the arts by the Samuel DuBois Cook Society. She was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri.
Dreams of Defiance Playlist
Dreams of Defiance: Black Feminist Fantasy and the Direct Gaze is accompanied by a playlist of 10 songs. Special thanks to Andre Mego (T’20) for his contributions to the playlist.
Articles and Research
This project included extensive research on black feminism as it relates to art history, in addition to research on the works of art and artists themselves. Linked are a set of relevant articles that influenced this project as well as the thesis project.