Sunday, October 10, 2010

The 22nd Century Portraitures

2008, Archival ink on cotton rag paper
Nandipha Mntambo

I first encountered Swantini artist, Nandipha Mntambo's provocative work at the 2009 exhibition Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities at Spelman College. This exhibition dealt with how
the black woman's body is percieved and treated not only by the larger pop white culture but examined how the black psyche has digested and internalized the ugly caricaturization and stereotypes of ourselves. In this photographic piece, Mntambo literally re-creates herself to look like a bull, which has special significance to both her personal and national heritage. Embodying both the matador and the bull she shows her incredible strength and courage and her almost heroic abilities to overcome anything. Nonetheless knowing this personal background doesn't take away the horror, shame, breathlessness and shock imagery evokes. The first time viewing piece I literally got chills--as it was both mesmerizing and frightening at the same time. Imagery for me always conjures up the duality and contradictions that exists with black femininity; for on one hand our exoticism if not handled carefully can quickly turn savage and our mystique on the other hand can be easily be mistaken as a nightmare.

"Odille and Odette"
2005, stills from High Definition Digital Video
Yinka Shonibare

British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, is always on a quest to demystify and debunk the myths of what constitute black idenitity. He mischievously and brilliantly plays and blurs these lines. He always 'misappropiate' and 'misaligns' what is traditionally considered to be only African and only European and instead mashes these two fixed ideas of each identity together. In his 2005 film "Odille and Odette" he showcased a ballerina dancing evocatively a solo number in front of a massive mirror. However ballerina is both black and white and it is hard to distinguish who is the real and fictional selves as each woman dances in perfect harmony with each other creating a breathtaking mirror image of each other. In this somewhat bizarre self-portrait you simply cannot tell who is what as black and white identities are seamlessly merged.

"Exquisite Self Portrait: Jesus Christ Superstar"
2010, photo collage and mixed media on canvas
Rob Pruitt

In Pruitt's whimsical and sacrilegious self portraiture of himself as Jesus, he reveals his somewhat religious side. A man who famously used cocaine as part of an installation and encouraged viewers to participate which they eagerly did---nothing becomes off-limits in his visual vernacular. So in keeping with his rebellious streak he fuses Christ, bublegum and googley eyes in a single self composite. I am not sure what to think of all of this but one thing for sure Rob Pruitt is not to be taken too seriously or should he?.


  1. I really really enjoy these first 3 images you posted, i suppose fortunately for me i was born a white male, and never really had to deal with any kind of prejudice or odds growing up so its hard to relate. But on the other hand i've always been very attracted to black women for their mystique and allure, as it is much the opposite of what i am used to.
    That last image kinda looks like something from and Elton John album cover....

  2. Steve I believe that imagery speaks more of racial prejudice but shows the complexity and challenges one faces when trying to fit an individual or a group's identity in a box. Identity involves more than just skin color but is influenced and shaped by culture, language, nationality, family traditions etc which informs who you are. All of these influences along with certain stereotypes can make how you identify yourself problematic. It's that problem that artists like Mntambo, Shonibare and Pruitt constantly wrestle with.