One of the most controversial African-American artists working today, Renee Cox has used her own body, both nude and clothed to celebrate black womanhood and criticize a society she often views as racist and sexist.
She was born on October 16, 1960, in Colgate, Jamaica, into an upper middle-class family, who later settled in Scarsdale, New York. Cox’s first ambition was to become a filmmaker. “I was always interested in the visual” she said in one interview, “But I had a baby boomer reaction and was into the immediate gratification of photography as opposed to film, which is a more laborious project.”
From the very beginning, her work showed a deep concern for social issues and employed disturbing religious imagery. In It Shall be Named (1994), a black man’s distorted body made up of eleven separate photographs hangs from a cross, as much resembling a lynched man as the crucified Christ.
In her first one-woman show at a New York gallery in 1998, Cox made herself the center of attention. Dressed in the colorful garb of a black superhero named Raje, Cox appeared in a series of large, color photographs. In one picture she towered over a cab in Times Square. In another, she broke steel chains before an erupting volcano. In the most pointed picture, entitled The Liberation of UB and Lady J, Cox’s Raje rescued the black stereotyped advertising figures of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima from their products, labels. The photograph was featured on the cover of the French newspaper Le Monde.
“These slick, color-laden images, their large format and Cox’s own powerfully beautiful figure heighten the visual impact of the work, making Cox’s politics clear and engaging,” wrote one critic.
But her next photographic series would be less engaging for some people and create a firestorm of controversy. In the series Flipping the Script, Cox took a number of European religious masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta, and reinterpreted them with contemporary black figures.
“…Christianity is big in the African-American community, but there are no representations of us,” she said. “I took it upon myself to include people of color in these classic scenarios.”
The photograph that created the most controversy when it was shown in a black photography exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City in 2001 was Yo Mama’s Last Supper. It was a remake of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper with a nude Cox siting in for Jesus Christ, surrounded by all black disciples, except for Judas who was white. Many Roman Catholics were outraged at the photograph and New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani called for the forming of a commission to set “decency standards” to keep such works from being shown in any New York museum that received public funds.
Cox responded by stating “I have a right to reinterpret the Last Supper as Leonardo Da Vinci created the Last Supper with people who look like him. The hoopla and the fury are because I’m a black female. It’s about me having nothing to hide.”
Cox continues to push the envelope with her work by using new technologies that the digital medium of photography has to offer. By working from her archives and shooting new subjects, Cox seeks to push the limits of her older work and create new consciousnesses of the body. Cox’s new work aims to “unleash the potential of the ordinary and bring it into a new realm of possibilities”. “It’s about time that we re-imagine our own constitutions.” states Cox.
For further information and to View more Photography Visit: Renee Cox.org
Feminist Artist Statement by Renee Cox:
My main concern is the deconstruction of stereotypes and the empowerment of women.
I believe that images of women in the media are distorted and women are imprisoned by those unrealistic representations of the female body. This distortion crosses all ethnic lines and devalues all women. I am interested in taking the stereotypical representations of women and turning them upside down, for their empowerment.
That said, the main inspiration for my work comes from my life experiences. I use myself as a conduit for my photographs because I think that working with the self is the most honest representation of being. I am working toward regaining a “self-love,” not a narcissism, for the black female body as articulated by bell hooks in her book Sisters of the Yam. Slavery stripped black men and women of their dignity and identity and that history continues to have an adverse affect on the African American psyche.
The question for me is where am I at now in my life? I was the first pregnant woman in the Whitney Independent Study Program, as result of this I compelled into a new body of work called The Yo-Mama Series (pregnant and proud). From there I created a superhero named Raje, whose mission was to educate all children about African American history.
When I turned 40 the “Catherine Deneuve Syndrome” set in. In France a woman’s sexuality is allowed to mature, whereas in the United States women are only allowed to be sexual beings until age 39 and then are relegated to the background. As a result my series American Family was created. The body of work was a rebellion against all of the pre-ordained roles I am supposed to maintain: dutiful daughter, diminutive wife, and doting mother.
In 2002 I became more introspective and decided to look toward other female role models. I found a warrior, a liberator of her people, Queen Nanny Of the Maroons. In the 18th Century Nanny of the Maroons was a military expert and symbol of unity and strength to her people. Throughout time, the legend and spirit of Nanny of the Maroons, the only female among Jamaica’s national heroes, continues to inspire those with a desire for independence and the spirit to achieve it. I named my last body of work in her honor.
“The inner voice is your ancestors whispering in your ear.”
Lecture Video: Photographer and mixed media artist Renee Cox discusses her provocative and sometimes controversial work during an interview at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Georgia on Oct. 22, 2009. Cox addresses how race, gender, African-American womanhood, feminism, and social issues inspire and impact her work as an artist.