ArtStew presents: Is the Contemporary Caribbean Woman Naked?Thursday, October 25th, 2012 Categories: ArtStew, Features, Updates
Female Figures in Contemporary Caribbean Photography
The whole issue of looking at ourselves as looked at calls into question how and where we may be thought to possess ourselves, within this fiction of painless consuming of images-as-other” - Mary Ann Caws (1985)
In Feminist art theory, there has been a strong distinction made between a ‘nude’ and a ‘naked’ female figure depicted through art. John Berger described it in 1972: “Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display”. One has connotations of weakness, exploitation. The other has a sense of empowerment, of control over exposure. So is the empowerment of nakedness illustrated in contemporary Caribbean photography, and how does it contribute to understanding the process of being a Caribbean Woman as a subject?
In a historical context, the Caribbean has been a suitable breeding ground to analyze presentations of the ‘nude’ figure, especially on the colonial backdrop of slavery (what symbolizes human exploitation better than bodies being bought and sold?). For example the 1793 etching by Thomas Stothard (1755-1834) The Voyage of Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (fig.1). Here, in a re-interpretation of Botticelli’s (c1445-1510) famous work, The Birth of Venus (fig.2) a nude Angolan woman is depicted en route to the West Indies. The idealistic portrait is delusional in its attempt to illustrate the journey to slavery as leisurely and appealing. Perhaps it was intended as a tool to calm any misgivings about the horrific slave conditions. But what is of relevant note here, is the choice of comparison for the portrait. The nude Venus in Botticelli’s work was considered the epitome of ideal beauty for centuries, and still is for some. To depict Venus was to depict a goddess who “[For you] the ocean levels laugh, the sky is calmed and glows with diffused radiance.” This same aesthetic is seemingly applied to Stothard’s work. The same calm sea, the same demure pose, same body shape, the same mannerist elegant neck. Different of course is the skin colour and the hair/ lack of. It is not outlined whether Stothard created this portrait from sight or whether it was through a written description, so it is unclear whether this is a portrait of a specific Angolan woman or a generalized image for all of them. But either way it was the intentionally chosen depiction for soon-to-be enslaved African women, women who would make up part of the new Caribbean population. There can be two parallel readings of this. Firstly, it could be seen as the birth of the ‘exotic’ in art in the Caribbean. A goddess is exotic, as is a woman from a race previously unknown to European men. Artists like Henri Matisse ( 1869-1954) would similarly depict naked women of Tahiti in the new ‘exotic’ later down the line. Secondly, it could be seen as incorporating these new figures into the roles of creating a Creole population in the Caribbean and ultimately women universally at the time: these were objects to be admired for their beauty, but to be owned, for use of presentation and consumption. Because to view an image is to consume it, so therefore can it not be derived that to view an image of a nude woman is to consume her?
Zooming through history, in a contemporary art setting arguably this notion of the ‘nude’ has evolved into presentation of ‘nakedness’ in the subjects and the even the artists subjecting the figures. Photography, for instance, has always had this aura of being anthropological, as though through the lens ‘truth’ is documented. However, over time, it has been noted that the agenda of the photographer is never neutral, the gaze always directed. Perhaps this shift in consciousness around the ‘nude’, especially in photography, is mainly due to the presence of Feminist Theory and analysis of the female’s ‘role’ (does such a thing exist?) in society. But to what extent can nakedness really be applied in the Caribbean context, or are we always to be nude as baptized by Stohard? Let us look at four instances for a sample run down; the works of Renne Cox, Rodell Warner, and Mark King.
Jamaican Renee Cox (b. 1960) inserts her own unclothed body into the 1996 piece Yo Mama’s Last Supper (fig.3), a re-interpretation of a famous 1498 painting by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), The Last Supper (fig. 4). By placing herself as the central character, it gives the suggestion her body is something that is simultaneously worshipped and sacrificed. The comment on consumption is also strong, as in the story Jesus proclaims the wine and bread which is shared amongst the apostles is his flesh and blood, so too Cox implies that the men beside her eating and drinking are consuming her flesh and blood. The comparison of renaissance with contemporary could be read as an intention to reclaim the Caribbean female body in an artistic space, in the same way which Stothard may have attempted to own it during his portraits of colonization. This direction and somewhat control of how her figure in the image is read, how we are looking and consuming her, suggests that this is not an image of a ‘nude’ in the same way the Sable Venus may be, but is an image of Nakedness. Other Caribbean photographers have implemented this same theatrical method of reclaiming historical space, such as Marvin Bartley’s 2011 work The Great Rape (fig.5).
Similarly, Trinidadian Rodell Warner’s (b. 1986) 2009-2011 works under the title Photobooth, (figs 6-7) utilize the unclothed Caribbean female figure (and male) as naked empowerment. However, this is not done in a direct response to history like Cox or Bartley, but by creating a space of pure sexual liberation. A private booth was set up at Trinidad’s Erotic Art Week and visitors could take images of themselves portraying what was ‘erotic’ to them, which they gave permission to be exhibited the following night. In the words of the artist: “The still-new phenomenon of our intensifying ability to produce and circulate self images has driven an inquiry into one’s ability to capture one’s image and present the self as one wants to be seen.” So in this instance, instead of having control over how the figures are consumed, both the artist and the figure are giving the images up for consumption freely. So they are Naked in their liberation from being attached to the act of their consumption. They are not considering themselves as being presented, but almost like they are the ones inserting their nakedness into the viewer’s own visual space.
Barbadian Mark King’s (b.1983) works by contrast arguably illustrate voyeurism of contemporary Caribbean women. But instead of exerting ownership of the figures, he gives a sense of exploring the implications of looking at ‘the nude’ in a contemporary setting. For example his Simone series (fig 8). Here his subject is personalized through use of her name, yet she remains an object in the image, integrated into the landscape, part of the tropical picturesque. Through this, she does not have control over how her image is consumed, she is posing as a still life and does not even open her eyes lest she confronts the viewer, so they can be comfortable in their consumption.
King’s consciousness of this process could be seen as detaching himself from owning his nude subjects. He actively addressed the complex nature of presenting the nude in works he did for a residency at Alice Yard, Trinidad in 2012 (fig. 9). Here women were placed in an enclosed space with a glass front, as exhibit subjects for study and documentation. He was drawing comparisons between the practice of bird watching and women watching in Trinidad. Marsha Pearce, in her analysis, stated that “King’s project lends a powerful, nuanced appreciation of the socio-cultural constructions of gender and the dynamics of the interface between men and women.” Through this presentation and simultaneous acknowledgement of the nude figure, King dissolves the rigid lines of Berger’s Naked/Nude separation. These women are at once nude in their vulnerability to consumption, but also naked in their acknowledgement of it during the process.
Ultimately no conclusions can be drawn on the title question posed, whether Caribbean women are collectively represented as naked or nude [perhaps we can strive to be depicted as both]. But just acknowledgement that these aspects, where once automatic, are now conscious decisions on the part of the artist, and that no contemporary photography in the Caribbean depicting unclothed women in a space can negate reflection on it.
-  John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, BBC
-  A letter to Venus, an excerpt from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius written in 50 B.C, which Sandro Botticelli is thought to have used as inspiration for The Birth of Venus.
-  Photobooth, http://rodellwarner.com
-  Mark King’s Photographic Explorations of Trini Women, Marsha Pearce, July 2012, www.arcthemagazine.com