“It’s hard to keep a good woman down, so I keep coming,” declares Queen Latifah in the 1989 song “Come Into My House.” The song, drawn from the album “All Hail the Queen,” gives form to a new exhibition titled “Give Me Body!: Femme Re-Divined” at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA).
Curated by MoCADA Executive Director Amy Andrieux and curatorial fellow Sophia Rose, the multimedia exhibition brings together work from more than two dozen artists to examine and, at times, challenge the ways in which the femme form has been represented and understood in culture.
“Mother. Shorty. Wifey. Bitch. Woman. Trans. Feminist — and other various descriptors for the female sex gradient, also come diabolically attached to a long antiquated idea of femininity, whose trappings and boundaries suffocate rather than uplift,” reads the exhibition description. Offering a critique and corrective, the exhibition pays close attention in particular to how women of color, trans and queer artists use art to push against the more restrictive notions clinging to womanhood. “This exhibit is a celebration of the femme form, empowering all.”
We corresponded with Andrieux about the exhibition, Queen Latifah’s influence, representation of the femme form and efforts to foster conversations around these issues.
What inspired you to use Queen Latifah’s “Come Into My House” as the jumping off point for the exhibition?
Interestingly, I planned the exhibition themes for our 2019 calendar back in August. So initially, I knew I wanted to explore the spectrum of womanhood, specifically what it means now in 2019 as it pertains to Brown and Black bodies and moving forward. I also knew that it was important to celebrate all of the tremendous growth and visibility we’ve achieved in recent years, while unpacking how much we’ve had to endure historically, culturally, politically, economically. There was so much…
As the exhibition dates got closer, and the idea of amplifying “femme” came to mind, “Come Into My House” made sense because we were inviting folks into our community space, a safe space for our community to talk and catch up about a range of topics from explaining the differences between feminism and womanism, to navigating definitions — cis, non-binary, sex versus gender, intersectionality, etc. And the lyrics and the video spoke to everything we were trying to say and accomplish simultaneously.
How did Queen Latifah’s larger body of work — especially in the ’90s — inform the exhibition in general?
Having been a journalist for the last 20 years, I was lucky to have been granted an interview with Queen Latifah back in 2008, I believe. Humble, smart, conscious and so fully connected, she lived up to be everything her musical body of work purported her to be. She was/is one of a kind.
I grew up in NYC in the ’90s, so I remember when the song came out. It was a classic house record that knocked hard, especially during a time when all of us were coming to our African consciousness, so to speak. And Latifah was the queen of this. She was unapologetically African from her garb to her influences, and unapologetically educated and well-informed, and she shared both parts of herself religiously. Hip-hop, the conduit of the time, was her vehicle to express these sentiments.
To me, Black and Brown women have been doing this for centuries, teaching and leading the way, and these artists who are part of this exhibition are no different. Through their chosen mediums, the baton is now in their hands to do the work. And it echoes the work Queen Latifah and others before her started way back when.
In the tour notes, you provide a list of questions at the beginning and a glossary of terms related to the exhibition at the end. Why include this?
We create tour notes for every exhibition and provide resources to dig deeper. To us, we’ve prided ourselves on being “more than a museum.” We enable art appreciation and deliver the arts directly to the people through a three-pronged approach, which includes community programming, education and exhibitions. So when you visit our space, yes, of course, we want you to fall in love with the works that are on view. But we also want you to explore how it makes you feel and the conversations it encourages you to have.
Part of our mission is to incite dialogue around critical and pressing social and political issues facing the African Diaspora. The goal here is really to incite collective healing, and what better way to spark that by asking questions and arming folks with the language necessary to foster intelligent conversation on even ground.
Can you talk a little bit about the reading list? How does this work as an extension of the exhibition?
The reading list is evolving! We have to salute the change-makers who came before us who paved the way for us to have these types of conversations and this freedom! We’re so quick now in the day of social media to say, “No one has talked about this ever!” which is simply untrue. So the reading list is a starter pack in a sense, a call to action — just like Latifah’s song — for those interested in exploring the themes more passionately or for those who just want to learn a little bit more.
What was your process in selecting the artists represented in the show?
This was a difficult process. We started with a list of 50 artists, which kept changing based on the availability of artists and their work. Sophia Rose, a curatorial fellow at MoCADA, who collaborated on this exhibition with me (and is also a featured artist), was tremendous in staying sane as I rearranged the list in different ways. We knew we wanted this exhibition to be multimedia and for it to hit every single theme, that the sum of all of the ideas was greater than one individual approach. And so we revised and revised until we arrived at the exhibition that is currently on view, and I couldn’t be any more proud of the show and Sophia’s growth over the past few weeks.
How have you seen representation around the femme form in art change in the last few years?
In the last few years, I have seen many Queen Latifahs arise, so to speak, carrying different messages. Take our “Give Me Body” exhibition, which includes performance pieces like Darryl Terrell’s “Becoming Dion” series and Marielys Burgos Melendez’s performance tribute “the sky beneath my feet” and Ayesha T. Jordan’s “Shasta Geaux Pop for President,” to visual pieces by Genesis Tramaine (who recently held a solo show at the Richard Beavers Gallery, titled “God is Trans”), Kimberly M. Becoat’s “Urban Hottentot: Touchable” (which explores Sarah Baartman and safety), Denae Howard’s “Eve’s Compassionate Gifts Tabernacle” (which explores “strippers” as saints), to Harmonia Rosales’s “ASE,” which digs deeper into the spiritual influences of Yoruba. Many of these could not be discussed in a public forum less than 10 years ago. So something is happening and the ceiling has definitely given way to make the work of these artists possible today.
How do you see it adapting in the future?
I think there is a kind of rallying cry right now to expand opportunity, representation, conversation, perspectives, and I think all of that is amazing. But I would be remiss to not include the fact that this is just a first step. When we think about movements that engage women, we need to not only respect diversity and the nuances revolving around each group within the spectrum, but we really need to also be sure that we’re not repeating the same mistakes the patriarchy made through the lack of inclusion. This is the tremendous task ahead of us — this and giving a platform to those from the various groups to speak for themselves.
What would you like, ideally, for visitors to take away from the exhibition?
Listen to the third verse… That we’ve always been here in a variety of bodies, hues and perspectives, but collectively we are a major force to be reckoned with. Still we rise…
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Top Image: Detail of "Kitt And Kaboodle," Theda Sandiford.