In a recent lecture I gave after Martin Luther King Day to undergraduate students on “Race and the Gaze” in an Art History course one of my male Caucasian students commented that reading bell hook’s theories, on what she coins the “oppositional gaze,” was a difficult topic for him to connect with because he said he had neither the same position of race of gender to orient his identification. I asked him to elaborate and he said never having experienced either form of discrimination he therefore did not feel he had the right to comment on it because his status as white Caucasian male was the tipping point of the problem of the male gaze.
Bell hook’s describes the “oppositional gaze” in a chapter of her book Black Looks: Race and Representation as coming out of a history of slave culture “That all attempts to repress our/ black peoples’ right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze.” The “oppositional gaze” for hooks therefore is not a pivoting towards the reversal of roles in the subject-object relationship in figural representation but it is a call for arms to an ocular duel of death. Hooks beckons women of color to be in the position of the gazer when for so long they had been used as the decorative “other” only to appear within the conversation as fragmented bodies and egos. Hooks overrides the traditional power paradigms in the visual realm of (passive=female and active= male) and calls for an identification with the aggressive nature of this proposition. However, hook’s call for an assertive role reversal of power is not uncommon to the history of Feminist photography particular within the medium of collage.
To begin to understand the medium of collage as a form of social protest in connection to feminist theory it requires the analysis of the emergence of the process within the context of European Dadaism. Hannah Hoch, the sole female representative of the Berlin Dada group, created works such as Fashion Show (1924-25) that not only critiqued the male gaze during the Weimar republic but also brought into question the narrow category of defining Germanic heritage solely through the Aryan race. Hoch’s collage Fashion Show focuses on critiquing narrow Germanic standards of racial beauty that were slowly becoming prevalent in Nazi propaganda. Hoch presents three abstract female forms wearing identical Victorian era dresses with cinched waists and fragmented faces with their racial identities covered in masks. The only recognizable face is the deconstructed visage of Botticelli’s Renaissance vision of the Birth of Venus (1484-1486) on the left. Hoch and her contemporaries deconstructed the medium of political posters to aggressively critique the racism that was quickly seeping into Nazi propaganda images of the era.
Not unlike Hoch’s work, contemporary artist of color Mickalene Thomas creates a dialogue surrounding the fragmented ego of the female object under the guise of the male gaze in art history. Her work not only draws attention to this fragmentation through themes that address the masks women wear in the boundaries of subscribed beauty but she also literally cuts the classical center-point picture plane into pieces. Veiling the female-object through colors patterns and newspaper clippings reminds the viewer that this is not a private unobstructed peep-hole to what feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey refers to as their “scopophilic” pleasure but a conversation that Thomas takes the lead. In an interview with Vice magazine, Thomas commented on the question of identity politics in her work and the intersection it makes with the gaze. Avoiding the direct oversimplification of her work as a reaction solely to the gaze in that she is creating her own female vision that objectifies her subjects, she responds with the following idea. “While the women in my work celebrate different notions of beauty, I think simultaneously they are providing a confrontational barrier that challenges the clichés traditionally laid on women of color. Through their assertive gazes, they are demanding to be seen, to be heard, and to be acknowledged.” This notion of commanding visions recalls hook’s understanding of the assertion that the “oppositional gaze” must be critical and it must make waves.
In Thomas’s recent work Racquel Is All I Need (2015) one aspect of the context that alters the interpretation of this work from the tradition of the male gaze is that Thomas chooses models for her compositions that are intimate and inspiring figures within her own life. Although, one could argue that artists like Manet had a close sexual relationship with model Victorine Merund or Alfred Stieglitz with his friend and spouse Georgia O’Keeffe there is a difference with this relationship because Thomas’s title already attributes both a connection between the artist and the name of the model that automatically gives her a unique identity. There is a long tradition in the genre of the female nude to create the subject as a mythological creature and name her as a “Venus” to distance the viewer from the real woman’s identity behind the frame. Although, Manet drew attention to the farce of the Venus type he still made a spectacle of the subject, whereas, Thomas reinstates the dignity and the power of the reality of this individual. Her title links you to her own understanding of the truth of this figure on a personal level. Thomas’s re-interpretation of Manet’s painting Le Dejeuner sur l” Herbe (1862-1863) also opens up dialogue for the viewer on this continuum of the female nude but not merely quotes the past to comment on the absence of black female presence of the history of art but changes the dialogue to now be the one to instigate the conversation.
Not only does Thomas alter the title of her works to emphasize the gaze of female figures but she also creates her own iconography using the technique and rich political history of the process of collage. In Racquel Is All I Need (2015) she juxtaposes the real and imagined worlds of her idealized figure with the warmth of layers of vibrant leopard and print floral patterns to lifeless black and white geometric designs. The Layers in this work also obscure the perspective of the viewer’s gaze from the center-point picture frame to one of an atmospheric view that creates depth in this composition through texture rather than trompe l’oiel geometry. Although the background creates a new alternative to the Renaissance illusionistic experience for the viewer gazing at a portrait the most dominant feature of this piece is the blending of newsprint and color in the center figure. Not only is she masked with black and white photography but her clothing is literally split down the middle with part modest dress covering and part exposed leg. The sexual beauty of Racquel’s legs is on display but her interior life and facial features are frozen in another space and time through the process of collage.
Moreover, the role reversal within the gaze of artists like Thomas or Hoch is one that does not merely create a female gaze objectifying the female form by her own terms but rather one based on a mutual positioning of power of both the subject and the object. One of hook’s major premises of her argument for the oppositional gaze and critique of previous female authors that address the gaze, like Laura Mulvey’s theory of scopophilia, is that the perspective of women of color acts as a foil within a story focused on Caucasian sexual drama. Hooks states, “Even when representations of black women were present in film our bodies and being were there to serve- to enhance and maintain white womanhood as objects of the phallocentric gaze.” For hooks the role of black women was to present binaries that made the objectification of white females more appealing. In other words, women of color were odalisques or Jezebels, sexual feigns to be feared and temporarily embraced only to remind you of your truest form of sexual desire for your “own kind.” If black women were not their to invoke the exotic erotic desire then they were meant to be presented in an asexual manner as a domineering figure or a care-taking mammie-type eradicating their sexual power.
To return to my student’s question regarding how do we fight against an injustice we ourselves have never experienced personally I ask myself the same question in writing this essay on hooks’ “oppositional gaze” as a Caucasian women? I also question why when I talked to a young white male doctor yesterday in his 20s who lives in my apartment building about attending the women’s March and supporting the #MeToo movement my eyes begin to squint, starting to criticize how he can fight for an injustice I assume he has never personally experienced? This is a much broader question that I am still in the process of sorting out but in the meantime I look to Audre Lorde’s advice “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.“
Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1978).
bell hooks,”The Oppositional Gaze,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, (New York: Routledge, 1992). 116-119.
Olivia Parkes, “Artist Mickalene Thomas is Bringing Black Women into the Cannon,” Vice, August 5th, 2016, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/mickalene-thomas-interview.
Alison J. Leedy is Contributing Editor of Au Courant Femmes and an Assistant Professor of Art History at Rocky Mountain College of Art in Design in Denver, CO. Her research focuses on the female gaze in Modern art. Leedy also is a musician and songwriter and plays in the band Folly Fields.