“Woman in White Dress Sitting on Rock” by KALZ of Kampala, Uganda
Naked Black bodies are not new to American history or art. From images of captured Africans chained on slave ships or being violated at slave auctions to magazine and movie images portraying the tribal attire of certain African tribes as the nakedness of immoral savages, the Black body exposed like chattel is well documented. What is relatively new in Western culture is the portrayal of naked Black bodies as symbols of beauty, art and culture, willing vulnerability, and motivators of social justice. These are the portrayals that can awaken and inspire to action any individual, especially individuals committed to social justice and/or to being people who put faith into action. This also is the art that can empower, inspire, and in both conscious and unconscious ways have a positive impact on the self-image of Black women of all ages. When the portrayals of Black bodies in photographs and paintings are used in these ways, they become acts of moral agency. They become acts in which the artist is challenging and broadening the way we view what is normal, appropriate, and ethical. When the artist produces these works in systems and institutions within society in which the artist may be punished for using her agency, whether in subtle or obvious ways, in the present or future, the artist is engaging in acts of moral agency under constraint.
The visual artist Renee Cox is an example of a moral agent under constraint. She is a Black female who creates and exhibits works in which Black bodies, including naked Black female bodies, are beautiful, strong, and empowering for women of color. She also creates works in which these bodies are presented in ways that remind us of the ways Black bodies have been and are continuing to be abused and violated and that issue a visual call to action to prevent such abuses and violations.
Cox has often used self-portraiture to bring social justice issues to the public’s awareness and remembrance. By viewing her works, each of us can experience the ways in which visual art as resistance can educate and empower us. If we are open to the experience, such works also can help us broaden the way we perceive secular and sacred works, ways of being, and images, including the image of Christ.
Renee Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper1 in which she reworks Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is one illustration of the ways in which Cox has called awareness to the lack of positive Black female images in expressions of Christianity and challenged people to envision Christ in ways beyond what I call the Swedish Jesus, the pale White male with wavy blond hair and blue eyes that hangs on many local church walls, including local churches whose members are predominately people of color. The Swedish Jesus and a few dark-haired similarities have become the standard representation of Jesus of Nazareth and of the Christ. Other male versions, for example with a Black, Latino, or Asian male, are in circulation but are often viewed as being alternatives to the real Jesus and for some Christians are deemed inappropriate or even heretical. Cox has taken the risk of replacing Leonardo da Vinci’s version of Jesus with that of a Black nude female. The work calls us to envision a Christ who embodies all of us, regardless of ethnicity or gender.
In numerous instances, Cox has consciously made a decision to create and exhibit photography that exposes historical and contemporary racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. She believes that as an artist, it is her responsibility to do so. In a 2015 presentation, Cox stated, “I want change. I think as artists we have it in our power to maybe make a little bit of change. I accept it as a responsibility.”2 Cox has made these decisions in spite of the constraints placed and attempted to be placed on her as an individual of African descent, as a woman, and as an artist. Her courageous actions exemplify what it means to exercise moral agency under constraint as an African-American female.
The Exercise of Moral Agency from a Womanist Perspective
Womanist thought intentionally incorporates a broad range of viewpoints in seeking human equality, mutual respect, and love of all life. Thus, it is not surprising that womanist definitions of moral agency also are diverse. Cox’s works of art as the fruits of Cox’s exercise of moral agency under constraint exemplify the following womanist definition of moral agency by Kelly Brown Douglas:
Moral agency is not characterized by the systemic and institutional forces that undercut the well-being of black women. Instead, it is seen in the unfailing physical, emotional, and spiritual energy black women have historically marshaled to engage in acts of resistance to their oppression, be it spitting in a master’s cup or leading hundreds of enslaved toward freedom. Moral agency is thus defined by efforts to frustrate and dismantle any systems or structures based on unjust privilege, such as the privilege of being white, of being male, and/or of being heterosexual. The moral agency suggested by the struggles of black women means that womanist work must not be concerned with securing privilege in places of power, even if that privilege is for black women. Rather, womanist moral agency manifests itself as womanists firmly attest that certain systems and structures, which serve to exclude and penalize people for not being of the ‘privileged’ race, gender, or sexual orientation, are inherently evil and cannot be mended to be more just. Consequently, compromises should not be made with insidious systems. These systems must instead be dismantled.”3
Although Cox’s decisions to create and exhibit her work are not necessarily an effort to tear down an institution or system, they are acts of resistance to societal injustices against several groups. First, Cox’s work is an act of resistance to societal injustices against African-American bodies, in the negative portrayals of those bodies and in the physical brutality that continues to be perpetrated upon them. Second, Cox’s work resists the professional artistic community’s discrimination against women in creating an atmosphere of shame in which female artists often feel compelled to hide their roles as mothers in order to be respected as artists. Third, Cox’s work resists Christianity’s use of art to depict women and both male and female Christian icons in ways that seek to justify the subordination of women within church leadership and within society as a whole.
In all of these works, Cox exhibits the “unfailing physical, emotional, and spiritual energy”4 of which Douglas speaks. Using both historical and contemporary acts of injustice and stereotyped portrayals of African-American women, Cox conceives of a new vision, brings that vision to life through her photography, and often even poses in the photographs herself as the body scorned, shamed, or celebrated. In her works speaking to concepts of motherhood and to Christian imagery, Cox also moves beyond resisting injustice to inspiring awareness and empowerment. Her photographs say to women of all ages and ethnicities in today’s society that they have the ability and the right to determine their own destinies as they too are created in God’s image, not as second-class humans, but as equals to men. In womanist fashion, Cox’s decisions to create and exhibit her works as she believes she has been gifted and has a responsibility to do in spite of any constraints placed upon her, serve to inspire other women to do the same.
For African-American women in particular, Cox’s decisions to place works like Yo Mama’s Last Supper and her Yo Mama series, in which she is photographed nude in various stages of motherhood, into the public arena also constitute acts of resistance against the past ways in which their bodies have been disrespected, abused, and taken as property by others as well as acts of empowerment saying: Yes, my body is as beautiful, as valuable, as entitled to respect as any other body for my body also is created in the image of God. For Christians and/or individuals who feel constrained from choosing to be Christians or from acting in progressive ways to empower themselves and others due to repressive Eurocentric and androcentric interpretations and depictions of Christian scripture and images, Cox, through her willingness to create and exhibit her work, is not only freeing herself but bringing others with her on a liberating journey.
The Artist and Moral Agent Under Constraint
Renee Cox was born in 1960 in Jamaica and is of African descent. Her parents moved to the United States when she was a child and she grew up in Scarsdale, New York. Cox attended Syracuse University, where she majored in film studies, and where she began studying photography. After graduation, she focused on still photography, working mainly as a fashion photographer for several years. She later turned to fine arts photography, receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Currently, she works as a multi-media artist, using photography, including self-portraiture photography, film, and digital technology, for example, using fractals to create sculptural kaleidoscopes, to relay her messages of liberation, justice, empowerment, and African-American self-love, especially African-American female self-love and self-respect. Cox states,
“’I want to see my people have power…. I am looking for the uplift and empowerment.’”5
While the mediums in which she works vary, her societal commitments are consistent. “From the very beginning, her work showed a deep concern for social issues. In her first one-woman show at a New York gallery in 1998, Cox created [sic] superhero named Raje who led a crusade in trying to overturn stereotypes such as in the piece ‘The Liberation of Lady J and UB,’ where Raje leads Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to liberation from their boxes.”6 Cox reframes or repositions African-Americans in Euro-centric works and creates innovative works that question American society’s designations of what is normative, including Western Christianity’s designations of what is true, and that expand the ways in which Americans are able to envision the world around us.
- Renee Cox, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, last accessed 10/21/2020, https://www.reneecox.org/yo-mamas-last-supper.
- Renee Cox, “Renee Cox-Photographer, Political Activist, and Curator,” School of Visual Arts, New York, published on April 21, 2015.
- Kelly Brown Douglas, “Twenty Years a Womanist: An Affirming Challenge,” in Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society, ed. Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 149-150. (emphasis added)
- Stacey Williams, “Wonder Woman at the Brooklyn Museum: Aftermath,” In International Review of African American Art 17 no 4, The H.W. Wilson Company, Wilson Web, 2001, p. 43.
- “Feminist Art Base,” Brooklyn Museum, accessed October 25, 2017, http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/renee-cox.