The Beauty of Black Women: Theresa Chromati’s Oppositional Framework by Kaila Philo
“Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.” - bell hooks
The objectification of women’s bodies has been a prominent issue in art and media canons for decades. However, history tells us that this issue often considers the Eurocentric gaze. In other words, those being objectified and those leading the discourse that surrounds the criticism of this particular objectification have been white women. For her online exhibit Body Anxiety, Leah Schrager penned an essay called “The Female Painter” in which she deconstructs how women are depicted in men’s art. “The model (usually female) is often seen as just a passive poser who is there to be turned into something beautiful and meaningful through the artistry of the photographer (usually male),” she writes. The issue at hand with Schrager’s claim is how she, as many white feminists often do, glosses over how this theory varies when pivoted towards Black women as subjects. In order for any theory regarding women as objects to remain valid and sound, the theorist must take into consideration how Black women have been denigrated through all forms of American media since the dawn of slavery. Unfortunately, the treatment and objectification of Black women as variable is often remiss in the lexicon of female objectification in art. Often times, dialogue around women objectification in art considers the mistreatment of white femme identified bodies over those of color. Furthermore, it is assumed under the faulty assertion that all women are considered valuable and worthy of the male gaze and, thus, all women are objectified in the same fashion. This is not true.
The beginnings of white women objectification can be traced back to colonization and explained in so many words: White women were considered the guardians of morality and the standards of beauty in the New World. They are objectified in ways that portray them as valuable above all other forms of women, even if that depiction remains degrading. Schrager centers her essay around the concept of value—as a woman, as an artist, etc. In her understanding, women under the male gaze are automatically valued as consumable and, most importantly, worthy. Author of African American Women and Sexuality in Cinema, Norma Manatu , writes: “white women come to be perceived by society and to perceive themselves as passive-dependents,” writes. This depiction of the white woman in art is by no means new; Boticelli’s Birth of Venus is one of the most revered objectifications of the woman's body in all art history.
In contrast, to say that Black women are objectified in this particular sense is problematic, for objectification implies victimhood, and Black women have been portrayed more as sexual aggressors—or, in many cases, savages—since chattel slavery. “If the issue of ‘passive-dependence’ has been restrictive for women of the dominant group,” Manatu continues, “issues of ‘sexual-aggressor' and ‘dominant-matriarch' have been virtual nightmares for black women.” Black women (when not depicted by other Black women) are portrayed as tribal, bellicose, and/or as minstrels shifted in a sexual light. Think of Jean-Paul Goude’s (in)famous legacy thanks to both his portrayal of his then-girlfriend Grace Jones in the nude, striking an animalistic pose on her hands and knees, behind the dingy iron bars of a cage in his egregiously titled book Jungle Fever, and his much-maligned 1976 piece Carolina, depicting Carolina Beaumont in the nude (again), holding a champagne bottle that's shooting liquor in the air into a glass perched between her butt cheeks, all while smiling towards the camera in a way reminiscent of a 'pica-ninny'. This has been made more apparent in media such as film and TV through the infamous Sapphire, Jezebel and welfare queen tropes. We see this all throughout cinema: Sapphire, a domineering and independent Black woman, played by Vanessa Williams in Soul Food; the sexually liberated Jezebel, played by the cousin of Williams' character in the film; and the Welfare Queen played by Diahann Caroll in Claudine.
In her new solo exhibition at Platform Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland entitled BBW, artist Theresa Chromati emboldens the dismantling of these traditional stereotypes and objectifications of Black women that often exist in a vacuum. Upon reading BBW, my mind linked it two things: Drake droning on with “Yeah, that’s right, I like my girls BBW” via Nicki Minaj’s “Only” and the scintillating category on xvideos.com. The term BBW—an acronym for “big beautiful women”—exists in the same vain as the term MILF: it is exclusively used in a fetishistic context, sexualizing a taboo aspect of womanhood without proposing love, attention, or respect to the subject (or, in this case, object) in question. BBWs, especially Black women, are considered a sinful delicacy for male consumption considering its origins: The moniker was coined by Carole Shaw in 1979 when she published the fashion and lifestyle publication BBW Magazine, but soon became synonymous with fat fetishism in the porn industry.
This is in part the image that Theresa Chromati aims to dispel through her mixed media exhibition aptly titled BBW, in which she places black womanhood in what bell hooks calls the oppositional gaze, opening up an opportunity for agency not often rewarded to black women in the art world. Chromati’s first act of subversion can be seen in the title, for BBW: in this context, its definition is amorphous, often centering words that begin with the letter "b" and revolving around the narratives associated with Black women. The B’s in BBW could stand for black, besties, bold, brave, bae, bliss, bruised, blame, or anything in-between according to Chromati. Thus, every piece—comprised of digital imaging, bandana fabric, glitter, and, in one instance, kanekalon hair—is titled a disambiguation of “BBW”, starting with “Between a Braider’s Weaving”.
Each piece is a collage that centers nearly-nude woman figures, most sporting masks colored some variant of brown; while they differ in color, every mask contains a thick pair of flesh-colored lips and one humanoid eye paired with a colored dot in lieu of the other. “Between a Braider’s Weaving” illustrates one black woman braiding another woman’s hair. Chromati takes care to position these figures as the main focus of the frame by what surrounds them. The figures are starkly stable against their serene background consisting of a light blue-and-green tiled floor, light yellow walls with neon green vines crawling towards the ceiling, and a teal window leading to some sky-blue oblivion only serving to bask the figures in sunlight—or, at least, a glowing yellow spotlight beaming down upon them.
Next comes “Behind Bae’s Worth”. This 48 by 72-inch frame centers two Black figures, but this time a man and a woman embraced in an indomitable pose as if to convey the strength in their relationship. The woman has her back turned to the viewer as the man, blindfolded, embraces her from her front. The tiled floor returns in this piece, but turns into a pyramid directly behind the couple, its tiles turning from blue and green to yellow, red, and green which, against the blackness of the figures, invokes a Rastafarian color scheme as a subtle tribute to the Caribbean heritage.
Following “Behind Bae’s Worth” is “Beneficial Boot Wearer”, a piece that stands out among the rest due to its woman figure: She is entirely white, depicted as slipping on a leg (or “boot”) of one of the other black figures. The other leg is hanging on top of her bedroom door as if blackness were an outfit she could put on and take off whenever she pleased, like a garment. Outside of her window is green foliage against a deep crimson background. Here, Chromati is commenting on cultural appropriation. Particularly, how white women have been capitalizing off of black women’s cultural attributes as cool bona fides to boost their own social status. White people (especially women) have a history of appropriating Black features, styles, and bodies , adorning cultural customs of Blackness like one would an accessory, without having to carry on the actual burden of Blackness.
Vanessa Beecroft once used black bodies as props to posit herself a Virgin Mary figure in her 2006 piece “White Madonna with Twins”; in 1976 conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman created a series of “Bus Rider” portraits in order to imitate the stereotypical personae women are expected to perform as, and in several of these portraits she used blackface. And just recently, Marc Jacobs came under fire for making his non-black array of models don multicolor faux dreadlocks during New York Fashion Week. After much scrunity, he went on to claim that he was “colorblind". Inversely, a federal appeals court just made it legal to discriminate against Black people who choose to wear their hair natural in the workplace. Chromati’s “Beneficial Boot Wearer” provides an imperative social commentary and critique of such paradoxes in the contemporary.
The expressive “Brave Bond and Winding” follows “Boots” features two black woman figures in evocative poses as though the viewer had taken a photo of their routine mid-dance. This piece, like “Weaving,” has not one spotlight but two—one blue, one pink—shining down onto the women as they dance in front of a white background with “A Night to Remember” written in black cursive. They appear to be outside; in lieu of a tiled background there’s a gold and green fence to their left. Another, “Blessed Bonding Woes”, depicts two more Black woman figures laying on a tangerine mat in a congenial manner, mid-conversation, as a white woman figure peers out to them through foliage. Once again the sky is a bloody crimson, as it often appears to be when the white figure appears. Here, Chromati is depicting Black womanhood in tandem with white fragility; the Black women are bonding, reveling in one another’s beauty, while the white woman appears either perturbed or envious of the two brown figures.
The final piece, “Black Blissful Worship”, centers Black joy and ascendency, as three Black woman figures are shown holding hands while standing on their own respective pillars against a white background. The figures are punctuated by blue-and-green tiles. The woman to the far left is gazing off into the distance; the woman in the center is staring directly up towards the sky or ceiling or peak of whatever contains them; the woman to the far right is looking back at them. These corresponding looks may be showcasing three outlooks on Black women futurity. To look off into the distance signifies looking into a future or towards what can be, to look up above shows faith in a nondescript higher power, and to look back at these women is to show spiritual support for your sisters of the skin. All three of these poses denote worship for the body, mind, and/or soul.
While it seems as though Black women in any position meant for visual consumption are exploited or misrepresented through foreign (white, male, etc) lenses, the art world in particular is placed in a position in which Black women are either ignored entirely or exploited for others’ artistic merit; visual art demands profundity (even if it doesn’t contain the necessary conceptual framework) and so artists outside the realm of Black womanhood aim to dissect it, ingest it, consume it so that it can further their quasi-wokeness or enhance whatever features they possess as non-black non-femmes.
Visual art is unlike literature in which all meaning is entirely cerebral and laid out before the reader. Visual art—paintings, sculptures, etc—are still, static images that require a certain amount of perceptible expression in order for the viewer to grasp what the artist intends and so, as Black people have birthed entire artistic movements under the pressure of oppression, it's become very easy to lift Black pain, culture, or visual cues to inject an extra dose of meaning to a work.
Through BBW, Chromati controls the gaze that too often enables such damaging depictions, and subsequently changing the Black woman’s reality in the process. Through the use of female subjectivity and counter imagery, she has begun to contribute to the lexicon of Black feminist art. She shifts the narrative of aggression to assertion. The exhibit is a sweet oasis of collective therapy for Black people who seek to find authentic representation of themselves in contemporary art. BBW is not only a tribute to Black culture, Black womanhood, and Black love, but most importantly, a testament for Black humanity in a discipline still lacking it.
Kaila Philo is a writer and arts journalist based in Baltimore, MD, in which she's currently completing a Bachelor's degree in English Literature. She has been published in Mask Magazine and Seven Scribes, forthcoming work in Winter Tangerine, The Millions, Cep Journal, and the literary criticism anthology Critical Insights: Civil Rights Literature, Past and Present, to be published in January 2017.