Activating an Afrofemcentric Critique
by Shantay Robinson
Barbara Smith invokes in her seminal 1978 essay, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” that her goal in developing a Black feminist criticism is to reveal “the state of Black women’s culture and the intensity of all Black women’s oppression.” The primary oppressions Black women historically endured have been based on race, gender, and class; this trifecta has been given many names, but I will refer to it as intersecting identities. While Black feminist theory emerged as early as 1892, with intersecting identities at its heart, the conversation around this marginalization is still relevant today. It was Kimberle Crenshaw’s seminal 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” that popularized the term intersectionality to the larger scholarly community. This theory has real repercussions for Black women, Black feminists, and Black women artists. Intersectionality is not just theory for Black women; it constitutes their lived experiences in the United States. To critically assess meaning of Black women’s artwork, an understanding of intersectionality is necessary, as Afrofemcentrism acknowledges.
Afrofemcentrism, a term coined by Frieda High W. Tesfagiorgis in 1984, is central to the evaluation of Black women’s art as it pays particular attention to the intersecting identities of race, class, and gender, three social identity strata that oppress Black women living in the United States. Though Afrofemcentrism is not widely used in African American art criticism today, Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Lowery Stokes Sims employ the framework in a catalogue for Bearing Witness, a 1996 exhibition of Black women artists at Spelman College. Robinson states that High “uses her Afrofemcentrist construct to examine the ideas and representative artworks of Black women artists and to reveal and clarify the uniqueness of their self-depiction, thereby encouraging greater appreciation of form and technique.” The framework of Afrofemcentrism, although more than 30 years in the making, has been quietly existing among Black women artists and their artworks without the supporting scholarship to explicate their salience. Developing a criticism like Afrofemcentrism that teases out the effective parts of artworks makes them relevant and empowering to Black women’s experiences, and important in the meaning of their lives.
The connection between race, gender, and class when discussing justice in the United States leaves Black women tied to the struggle for all three fights. Today, while there are more minority groups in the U.S. than ever before, historically, Black women have been the most oppressed. Though Black women are not a monolith and their individual experiences are considered, most Black women contend with the issues of racism, sexism, and classism. Black women do not have the fortune to adhere to a single-issue framework like other historically oppressed people in this country, namely Black men who fight for racial justice and white women who fight for gender justice. Black women, as they climb class structures through education, remain less compensated for their work. So, when we think about Black women and their lived experiences, it is necessary to account for how their race, gender, and class factor into important decisions that dictate their livelihoods. As Afrofemcentrism takes these intersecting identities into account, it is crucial that Black women’s art not only be assessed for the formal qualities, but also how it attends to the issues Black women face as a community. And this is what Afrofemcentrism does. It not only looks at Black women’s art for its aesthetics, but it digs deeper to critique how it conveys Black women’s lived experience.
Revisiting Afrofemcentrism as a framework could have great consequences for developing criticism of Black women artists’ artwork. Gaining a better understanding of African American women’s artwork could inevitably relate to a better understanding of Black women’s inner lives. Using Afrofemcentrism to tease out the relevance in artworks could help interpret the art’s effectiveness. In “In Search of Discourse and Critique/s that Center the Art of Black Women Artists,” Tesfagiorgis states that “[Afrofemcentrism] focuses on the Black woman subject as depicted by the Black woman artist, exploring the distinct manner in which the latter envisions and present Black women’s realities.” Though Tesfagiorgis’ framework is about art, it relies on the canon of Black feminist theory that considers the intersecting identities first discussed by Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 A Voice from the South. In “Afrofemcentrism and its Fruition in the Art of Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold,” Tesfagiogris notes that race, sex, and artistic ability direct the work of Black women artists. That Tesfagiorgis is taking up the charge to use intersecting identities to theorize the work of Black women artists testifies to its necessity and salience more than 100 years since the concept had been introduced by Cooper.
Artist, Adrian Piper, addresses intersecting identities from a somewhat different perspective as her assessment has less to do with feminism and more to do with artistry. In her 1990 essay, “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists,” Piper writes, “…the very different concerns that may find expression in the art of CWAs [Colored Women Artists] – identity, autobiography, selfhood, racism, ethnic tradition, gender issues, spirituality, etc. – constitute a triple barreled threat.” She states that because Black women, in the face of prejudice, repression, and exclusion, are still optimistic in their artwork and they do not pose a postmodernist attitude of nihilism and mourning, Black women artists are negated from the Euroethnic artworld. While Piper’s essay contributes to why Black women are not more prominent in the artworld as she explains the zero-sum game played amongst artists, she captures how Black women are marginalized in the artworld at the time of the essay’s writing. Piper identifies a slightly different set of intersecting identities; she notes race, gender, and profession when speaking particularly of Black women artists.
Although Tesfagiorgis claims that Black feminist theory is less applicable for looking at the work of Black women artists, Afrofemcentricity is tied to Black feminist theory in the ways it looks at race, gender, class, and sexuality for their abilities to make meaning of the work. Afrofemcentricism is unique in the way it looks at how Black women artists are “actively engaged in the circumstances of the moment.” In thinking about the tenets for Afrofemcentrism and how they relate to the work of Black women artists, we might want to see if there is a distinct difference between the treatment of Black women as subject or object in the work of Black women as opposed to the work of others. Because the Black woman is subject as opposed to object, does she convey a different type of gaze when painted or pictured in the work of Black women? Is she overtly sexualized or merely sexual? Comparing the Black woman as subject versus object in the work of Black women to the work of artists of any other identity should provide a sense of the difference the identity of the artist makes when producing an image of the Black woman.
As a tenet of Afrofemcentrism, Tesfagiorgis calls for the eradication of universal truths. The idea that universal truths should be eradicated plays into issues of representation for Black women’s lives given Western philosophy normalizes Western ideas while rendering other cultures abnormal and deviant. Recognizing both African and European traditions is essential for African American woman artists because they are products of both cultures. While embracing African traditions, they also play a role in the Western art tradition through their training, schooling, and lived experiences. By acknowledging both cultures, they claim space in Black and European art circles. The hierarchy is dismantled in Afrofemcentric works because when Black women become central figures in artworks, they disrupt the hierarchy favoring white male interests. When putting the interests of Black women at the forefront, Black women artists are effacing the hierarchy in a way that claims their interests are valid. As Anna Julia Cooper claims with her famous statement of the Black woman’s position, “When and where I enter in the quietly, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole race enters with me.” Black women who obstruct this hierarchy are giving power to all others who want their interests known and entrée on to the world’s stage to express their artistry to a wider audience.
Patricia Hill Collins makes a case for Black feminist epistemologies in Black Feminist Thought where she accounts for the artistic contributions of Black women in counter-cultural spaces given the dominance of white-male-controlled institutions. She notes that intersectionality explains the social phenomena that is Black women’s artistic production. But what is most additive to this discussion is her claim that “… Black women intellectuals often encounter two distinct epistemologies: one representing elite White male interests and the other expressing Black feminist concerns.” In an Afrofemcentric reading of an artwork it could be assumed that the epistemological framework of an artwork exists within Black cultural knowledge. Though this in not the case with all works of art created by Black women, if the work is Afrofemcentric, by definition it is derived from an Afrocentric and Black feminist perspective. Knowing this, the critic approaching a work by a Black woman can assess it for its Afrofemcentric appeal. Criticizing any form of artistic creation comes with a certain amount of risks; without the proper research or knowledge, the unknowing critic could essentially miss the mark.
Critics writing about Black women’s artwork may stick to formal qualities although a work may exude socio-political content, a reason why Black women critics such as Deborah Chay in “Rereading Barbara Smith: Black Feminist Criticism and the Category of Experience” feel that roles like hers should belong to Black women, “legitimate practitioners of Black feminist criticism.” The work of Black feminist criticism is necessary, and “others” may not initially understand a work of art drenched in racial or gendered sub-context. Chay cites Joan Scott, as she explains “the evidence of experience,” noting “Black women’s existence, experience and culture… are in the ‘real world’ of white and/or male consciousness beneath consideration, invisible, unknown.” Black feminist thought is subjugated knowledge that requires a level of insight to unearth.
Recognizing the unique standpoint of Black women is helpful in unearthing the salience of Black women’s art. Since knowledge is socially constructed, sympathizing with, or taking heed to the unique standpoint of Black women helps tap into the meaning in their work. The social mediation of Black women’s artwork relies upon the knowledge of the critic and her understanding of the lived experiences of Black women to better assess their work. The standpoint, whether feminist or androcentric, plays a primary role in the reading of Black women’s artwork. There is no objective reading of an artwork; writing about and looking at art is very subjective. A person comes to an artwork with a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, and biases. Marguerite Helmers notes in “Framing the Fine Arts Through Rhetoric” that “the viewer operates from within a cultural situation that enables particular responses at particular times.” Helmers states “viewing is a transactional process.” An Afrofemcenteric reading alleviates some of those biases by adhering to a framework that allows a close look and interpretation of the artwork based more on the characteristics of the artwork and less on the biases and beliefs of the critic.
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Shantay Robinson has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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