Body Talk

Posted by: Asja Nastasijevic

The female body as subject, object, social and cultural signifier, metaphor of emancipation and a site of empowerment… Being implicated in various social and cultural constructs throughout history, the female body is above all a political issue. It revolves around patriarchy, power and control.

For feminist artists, the body is a medium, a sort of field of investigation through which they question and celebrate the “otherness”. It is also a battleground, as defined by Barbara Kruger, in which women fight to win their freedom and their places in society. Understanding of women’s bodies and what they signify goes beyond gender. Employing the body in artistic expression in order to fully perceive it’s meaning implies dealing with other issues such as class, race, religion, etc.

Black feminist thought has never seen these variables as separate from gender but rather as indivisible parts of “overarching structure of domination.” By including black women’s experiences in the analysis and getting to know what the body represents in different realities, we are able to understand what it ultimately demonstrates. Simple inductive reasoning!

What is a female black body? Moreover, what is an African female black body? The current exhibition at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, Belgium entitled Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body presents the work of a generation of women artists from Africa active since the late 1990’s that use body as a tool of defining and articulating issues of feminism and sexuality and race all at one time from the perspective of Black women. The body embodies history. It remembers. It talks.

The curator of the exhibition, Koyo Kouoh, writes in a statement that “manifesting the naked female body is a practice deeply ingrained in traditional African cultures as a means to expel injustice”. The meaningful use of the body is part of a long tradition of political activism in Africa that has continued to exist in Black feminist art as a vehicle of feminist expression. The exposed body is a powerful image that triggers many issues. The six participating artists – Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Marcia Kure, Valérie Oka, Miriam Syowia Kyambi, Tracey Rose and Billie Zangewa – deal with the issues raised by such exposed bodies that concern the woman’s experience of her embodiment, her identity and ethnicity, her past and current position in society, as well as all those things that bother us all but we still talk so little about such as prejudices, stereotypes, racism or the construction of black women in colonial discourse.

The artists bring a fresh and valuable insight into the realities of black women in Africa. Interpretations of the body and of feminism are broad and various and it is this diversity that we should be aware of so as to avoid usual standardization of feminist thought. These bodies talk from a singular space within a homogeneous world. Yet despite the different situations experienced on different continents, these artists claim the same as their white colleagues – control over their physical bodies and their sexuality as well as their places in society.

“ they don’t fit into little
pretty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.”
(Lucille Clifton, Homage to my Hips)

Image: Billie Zangewa – The Rebirth of the Black Venus 2010

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