Throughout history, the female body has been gazed at, governed, and sculpted by patriarchal ideals. Governments purport to rule over it; media determines its beauty; and the male-dominated art historical canon has molded the female body against a backdrop of violence and misogyny. Female bodies of color, in particular, are subjected to these problematic portrayals: Often invisible in art history, their depictions rarely communicate more than a fraction of their human experience.
The January cohort of artists at the Fountainhead Residency are united in their pursuit of a more complete portrait of female bodies of color. Renluka Maharaj, Helina Metaferia, and Alexandria Smith are female artists grappling with identity, sexuality and displacement in a society in which voices like theirs are constantly stifled. The Fountainhead Residency presented an opportunity to prepare for upcoming solo exhibitions across the United States, and put the artists in contact with a broader network in the hopes of elevating more female artists of color into the contemporary art dialogue.
“I’m most interested in presenting the empowered female through my work,” says Maharaj, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago to parents of Indian descent. Maharaj’s photography often aims to turn the male gaze on its head - nudity and sensuality are recurring motifs in the work, and she regularly photographs herself, her family, and her friends against colorful floral backdrops. Nodding to the vibrancy of her ancestral roots, these portraits dispel a quiet magic, and reframe the way brown bodies are often portrayed in museums and in the media. “I grew up in a quasi-religious home as my mother devoutly practiced Hinduism. I was fascinated by the stories and superstitions I grew up with, and I wanted to bring that all into my work,” says Maharaj.
Though Maharaj’s practice initially began with painting, she quickly felt limited by the medium. She transitioned to studio photography and found that much like painting, the process began with a blank canvas. “I was building tableaux, creating narratives, manipulating costumes, lighting, and color,” she says. “There’s still this painterly element to the work.” Loaded with symbolism, her pictures often incorporate themes of colonialism and displacement. In the series they stole my jewels but not my secrets, Maharaj covers one of her subjects in molasses, a reference to the damaging effects of the sugar trade; in another photo, Maharaj photographs herself reenacting an Indian fable of thievery, alluding to the histories stolen by colonists across the globe.
At Fountainhead, Maharaj was busy preparing for an upcoming solo exhibition in Denver, Colorado, and spent a substantial portion of her time expanding her practice into mixed media. She especially valued the opportunity to connect with her Caribbean roots. “Meeting other artists of other color was huge for me,” she says.
“Usually, when the black body is present in artwork, there’s a disfiguration, a perversion, or a romanticization of it,” Metaferia proclaims as we review a series of works she’s completed at the Fountainhead in anticipation of a major solo exhibition at Michigan State University. Sourcing from Michigan State University’s radical art archives, the artist has collaged posters, newspapers, and signage to create headdresses on images of black female protestors. These images act as the the remnants of her performance work; in documenting that process, Metaferia feels like she’s getting around the politics surrounding the black body. “Performance art isn’t about acting, it’s about authenticity; I want these women to be themselves,” she says. “By creating these archives, I’m explaining the histories that have been laid on them and the visions we have for the future.”
For Metaferia, whose parents are Ethiopian, those histories are often inextricably tied to the politics of the body and space. In a moment where the exodus of black and brown bodies into the United States is constantly being questioned and shut out - despite the country’s nefarious history of importing those same bodies for its own economic gain - Metaferia is exploring the marks left by such systemic oppression.
Mentored by Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos, Metaferia’s practice is multidisciplinary, and often juxtaposes her performance pieces against sculpture or collage that reinforces her thesis. In a recent work, Home | Free, the artist considers immigration, migration and gentrification with a video work that features the artist slapping and shifting wooden boards on a red floor. Shown in an exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, those wooden boards are arranged as a sculptural work as the video loops nearby. “Whenever I take on new projects I think of a persona that accompanies the performance and all its relics,” she says. “I was thinking about gentrification and taking on archetype of a healer. So instead of chicken bones, I threw wooden flooring.”
Smith, by contrast, employs subtlety and ambiguity in her stunning color-blocked canvases, which meditate on the transition from girlhood to womanhood and particularly, how that experience is lived by a black woman. “For me, the transition from girlhood to womanhood is this idea of being made visible and invisible at the same time,” she says. It’s a universal dichotomy that she aims to explore with specificity: Some women might become suddenly aware of their bodies, only to wish to hide them from the male gaze; others, like Smith, are made aware of their racial identity and othered, therefore rendered invisible. “I’m really trying to push how I can play with that formally,” says Smith, “and render visibility and invisibility in my paintings.”
The result is often figurative and abstract, muted and unmistakably loud. Employing faceless silhouettes, limbs, stripes and bold colors, Smith’s paintings are purposely meant to be dreamlike. Over the last 10 years, her process has been driven by memory - prior works she completed might pop into her head, and she’ll repurpose and collage some of those elements into new pieces. Smith usually makes a drawing before she begins working on canvas, and these drawings range from sketches to fully completed works. The repetition present within her practice adds an additional layer of complexity to the work, and aims to dispel any notions that growing up as a woman of color is a singular experience to be dissected intellectually. “When looking at work by people of color, there’s a tendency to forget that there are nuances and variety of how we exist in this world,” she says. “We’re not a monolith and we’re complex, and for me that's what repetition represents.”
While figures often dominate the canvas, the background is equally as symbolic for Smith. Nodding to domesticity and incorporating Roman and Baroque influences, these scenes are designed to contemplate the environmental influences that form our identities. In The Inconegroes for example, the artist employs archways and geometric brick and tile motifs as a backdrop to a group of amorphous figures, reflecting and intersecting with one another. “For me, these works are physical manifestations of our emotional and psychological experiences,” says Smith.
Each of their experiences demonstrates the versatlity of the Fountainhead Residency, which is designed for unstructured creativity while placing in artists in direct contact with new collectors or admirers of their work. "At most residencies, you're kind of left to your own devices," says Smith. "Here, there were tons of opportunities to discuss my work, and make new connections that can turn into future shows or opportunities.
While Smith came to Miami utterly exhausted and open to experimentation – the artist had just celebrated the opening of her latest solo show – Metaferia and Maharaj, by contrast, were focused on completing work for upcoming exhibitions. Both lauded the residency not only for the connections they were able to forge, but for the opportunity to make work in a richly multicultural environment. "One thing I loved about being in Miami is that I have the feeling of traveling without really traveling," says Metaferia. "I felt like I was in the Caribbean, and as a first-generation American, that keeps me fueled. I've felt a sense of otherness, like I can relate to people here."
Whether via painting, photography, performance or sculpture, these three artists are recontextualizing female bodies of color in a world that continuously erases their complexity. The experience at Fountainhead residency represented an opportunity for dialogue, expression, and connection in a moment where we need it the most.
by Nicole Martinez, Culture Conductor