The current collection at the Rose Art Museum contains the works of 35 male artists and six female artists. Furthermore, there are only seven artists of color. On Saturday, Nov. 17, Sheida Soleimani, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, used this lack of proper representation as an introduction to a discussion of racial discrimination and the use of gender roles. Soleimani analyzed Robert Cole Scott’s painting titled “I Gets a Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo,” and an exhibition of Helmut Newton’s photography in an attempt to highlight the use of gender stereotypes and racism in art. She also highlighted the ethics of photography, displaying whether or not it exploits the individuals in the photographs.
The talk continued with an explanation of “I Gets a Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo” painted in 1978. Cole Scott, a black artist, uses this image to reappropriate people on the ideas of racial exclusion. The image contains the face of Aunt Jemima, the woman known as the face behind Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix and syrup, combined with the distorted body of a white woman who appears to be sitting and wearing high heels. According to Soleimani, Aunt Jemima represents black motherly figures who worked as slaves as wet nurses. Similar to how a mother provides breast milk to her baby, Aunt Jemima provides nourishment through syrup. Cole Scott’s painting represents Aunt Jemima’s face in this manner to highlight how society has taken advantage of black women in viewing them as simply a means of providing individuals with food or sustenance. The title of the piece references De Kooning, a famous Dutch abstract expressionist artist who deconstructed the female body in many of his paintings. De Kooning painted “Woman I” which contains the distorted image of a white woman. Soleimani explains that with this reference along with the use of Aunt Jemima’s head in his painting, Cole Scott highlights the perspective of black people and their lack of representation not only in the art world but also in society. Through his painting, Cole Scott forces viewers to think about how others have been faced with prejudice. He basks in the ability to make individuals uncomfortable, to make them think and to make them feel guilty for the way they have treated blacks.
While Cole Scott’s painting highlights a group’s lack of representation, Helmut Newton, a white man known for his provocative photography, created photos that basked in the ability to adhere to the male gaze. From one point of view, Newton is almost exploiting these women in order to create photographs that induce pleasure in the minds of the viewers. According to Soleimani, the photographs display a lifestyle of partying, drinking, nudity and sexualized images that attempt to attract the male gaze. The men are fully dressed in these photos, while women are exposed, naked or dressed up for the men, and are therefore viewed as objects or prizes to be obtained by men. Although these images are simply photographs, viewers are given a taste of the life of the models present in these photographs. As a result, individuals construct an idea of the glamourized life that they must live.
Two of the images caught my attention. One contains a woman wearing a dress that exposes one side of her chest, however, she is holding a glass that is strategically placed to cover her breast. She is looking over her shoulder as if to challenge anyone who has a problem with her outfit. Her confidence caught my eye as, rather than feeling self-conscious due to her provocative dress, she embraces herself and basks in her beauty. The other contains Charlotte Rampling sitting on a table in an elaborately decorated room. She is completely naked, yet the photo is taken at an angle where nothing is exposed. Furthermore, she is holding a glass and a pack of cigarettes are on the table. She is looking at the camera with an expression that is not seductive but also does not create an inviting tone; rather, it sparks the interest of the viewer, causing them to want to know more about the subject and the context of the photo.
In my opinion, the ethicality of a photo depends on the intent of photographers and the willingness of the individuals in the photos. Once a photograph is put on display, it can never be deleted. Are women allowing themselves to be objected by the male gaze everytime individuals view their photo? Do they accept the fact that they are being judged not on their brains or their personality, but rather their body or their ability to put on a performance for the camera? Whether or not a photograph exploits an individual is entirely dependent on whether the individuals being photographed are aware of the consequences of their actions and the image that they are putting out into the world.
The “Through Lines” presentation by Professor Soleimani helped change my opinion of art museums and the art world. I realize that creations of art are heavily influenced by the audience. Specifically, many artists hope to facilitate change through their art and provide museum goers, who are typically middle class, with a new perspective on issues present in society. Artists, therefore, play a pivotal role in allowing for a change in society.