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The Political Representation of Women and African Americans in Art

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According to Thelma Golden, “There is no question that representation is central to power. The real struggle is over the power to control images.” Women and African Americans as two groups that suffer issues of discrimination and injustice, also struggle with the dilemma in the world of art. In order to fight for their rights and avoid the stereotypes, it should be raised the attention that how a group of people are represented and understood by themselves and others. One way to gain the power controlling images is to shape the ways to represent: negative representative characters strengthen stereotypical images and call attention to issues of discrimination, and positive representative depictions praise the accomplishment of these groups.

First emerged in the late 1960s, feminism intervenes the area of art, aiming to influence people’s attitudes towards female and transform stereotypes. Feminist art that resonates with feminist movement facilitate the expansion of feminist artists and feminist works. They fight for female rights and equality in different ways (Manchester, par. 2). For example, the Guerrilla Girls is a group of feminist artists who begin to fight agains the lack of female presence in artworks throughout the process exposing inequality of female in art. In a poster of their talk, a question is directly asked the viewers: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? A line of smaller words under the question points out that a small amount of works by female artists can be displayed in museums while females shown in artworks are mostly nudes. The figure near the words is combined by a Guerrilla Gils’ mask and the naked body of the female character in Grande Odalisque. Placing this inclining figure with the striking yellow background in the poster indicates the Guerrilla Girls’ method to reveal the truth and visually appeal to the viewers that female beauty is appreciated only when women take off their clothes. In this case, the Guerrilla Girl wears her gorilla mask that symbolizes a feminist group, while she uses the naked body to criticize the audience’s aesthetic orientation. Traditional art praises female beauty by depicting naked women, however, this poster raises the attention that in contemporary period, people still highlight seductiveness of women. Representation in this work is reflected by the contrast between the powerful symbolism and the discriminated nuked body. The Dinner Party is another example as feminist art. In the form of a ceremonial banquet, the artist arranges a triangular table with 39 plates. Each one dedicates to an important woman in history. 999 names of females are written in the central triangle. The surrounding settings on the table include embroidered names, utensils, and plates with floral patterns imitating the shape of vulvar. Viewers find disturbing when they link the patterns to female genitalia, but it is the contrast between beautiful forms and connected motifs strengthens honor and power of female. This work represents female as vibrant, energetic and elegant characters by displaying their private part of body. Besides, Cindy Sherman in her series of Untitled Film Still plays all the female roles. Viewers can only suspend the narrative line of the story based on the setting and Sherman’s facial expression, body language, as well as her clothes and makeup. In this way, Sherman guides the audience to imagine the scene and personalities of the roles and they might create a role based on their stereotypes or experiences of female. Stereotypical representation of female is covered by the so-called film; when the audience realize that the film does not exist, they have been trapped into their stereotypes of female.

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In addition to feminist art, African American art is also an exploration of a particular group suffering from political, social and cultural injustice. With the creative expression of art, African American artists compose various themes that reflect their experiences. For instance, Kara Walkers’ silhouette works demonstrate this issue with vivid scenes. One of her work, The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, is a series of life-sized silhouette that tells the history of slavery within four scenes. With the distinct features of African American and the white, Walker emphasizes stereotypical images of slave owners and the enslaved, further illuminating the cruel of slavery in a post-black interpretation. Considering the differences between modernism and post-modernism, post-blackness should be shown as the attempt to “transcend the limitations often imposed by race” (Murray 10). Murray in this essay discusses the redefining black identity in order to approach the definition and form of post-blackness with Thomas’s three works, in which feature African American females. He points out that the concept of post-blackness indeed becomes a “frustration of young African American artists” (9). Thomas in her works paintings and photographs focus on issues surrounding African American females, emphasizing themes such as femininity, sexuality, and power. Both Hotter than July and A Little Taste Outside of Love depict a reclining African American woman in nudity with seductiveness (11). The flatness of colors and composition implies the porn set and the stereotypical characteristics of African American women in 1970s. However, although these works were criticized due to the exploitation commoditization of black female bodies, Murray believes that Thomas herself as a black female, is achieving self-representation, in which she can seek for new meanings to be constructed.

In conclusion, when discussing the issue of discrimination and injustice, feminist artists and African American artists demonstrate various ways to represent respective group in order to reveal the inequality and stereotypes they confront and appeal to audience from different genders and races through art.

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