Black Womanhood Show Worth Extended Visit

October 26th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Go West. young aesthete — at least as far as Wellesley.  I’ve been to their past several main exhibits at the Davis Museum and heartily recommend the current Black Womanhood: Images, Icons and Ideologies of the African Body. Getting there and particularly hitting their sked is a bit of a pain, but worth it.

Factoids:

  • It runs another seven weeks, through December 14th.
  • Davis has idle homemaker’s hours —  Sunday, noon to 4; Monday, closed; Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday evening until 8 p.m.
  • It’s tucked West of the town center, requires a quick eye to locate, but does have some free parking.
  • The museum is free.
  • The show came from Dartmouth, whose museum offers a flier on it here and here.
  • It is suitable for families. There are National Geographic level bare breasts, but nothing violent or lewd.

Don’t get too distracted by the little joke of a school for rich, white, American women hosting such a show. Like Davis’ other shows, this one is solid and worth the trip.

Its defects are few and forgivable. First, the organizers were cautious, overly so, in avoiding political commentary or even stating the obvious racism in many of the artifacts from colonial and later 20th Century periods. They seem to assume and probably accurately so that visitors can easily make those connections and draw those conclusions.

Second is something to take into account when you go. This is a scholarly show as well as highly visual. Whether it is a bride’s skirt she made to forecast her own life or posed stereotypes of erotic, exotic black women, the descriptive placards by nearly all objects are long, detailed and demanding.

I was glad to have read each description. They provided a perspective I did not have. For example, a number of the postcards and stills were an odd blend of dress, furniture, lighting and posing. The placards point how how the unelectrified sites required creating an outside studio, how the intended audiences needed to see Western couches and other furniture that the subjects did not possess or use, how various mixes of European and native costume served different marketing purposes, and how some women were posed in unnatural eroticism for the time as the other.

As I slogged down in the demands of the exhibit, I realized a good way to learn and enjoy. I suggest:

  • Start in the narrow room with the tribal artifacts and photos.
  • Pore over  the initiation objects, decorated vessels and then the images.
  • Read each description but do not spend too much time viewing the objects. The next description will drag you down.
  • Then do the same in the larger, well-lit room with the modern objects.
  • Loaded with the information, take a healthy break, like at the adjacent Collins Café (weekdays, until 2 p.m.)
  • Return to the exhibit to immerse yourself in the objects and images. Loaded with the contextual information, you can really enjoy those without interruption.

This is no oh-those-poor-ignorant-slave-women show. Instead, it provides art-based insight into the lives of African women in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It sets out examples of how they and their cultural groups viewed, dealt with and respected the women as powerful figures, brides and mothers. The respect for (or lack of it) for the African women’s bodies and beings  pervades the exhibit. It gently corrects numerous Western stereotypes.

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