One of the most controversial African-American artists working today, Renee Cox has used her own body, both nude and clothed, to celebrate black womanhood and criticize our racist and sexist society.
She was born on October 16, 1960, in Colgate, Jamaica and later moved with her family to Scarsdale, New York. Cox began studying photography at Syracuse University and received her master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. After completing her MFA, Cox participated in the year-long Whitney Independent Study program.
From the very beginning, her work showed a deep concern for social issues. In her first one-woman show at a New York gallery in 1998, Cox created superhero named Raje who led a crusade in trying to overturn stereotypes such as in the piece “The Liberation of Lady J and UB,” where Raje leads Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to liberation from their boxes.
Her next photographic series, Flipping the Script, would create a firestorm of controversy. In the series, Cox took a number of European religious masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta, and reinterpreted them with contemporary black figures.
“...Christianity is big in the African-American community, but there are no presentations of us,” she said. “I took it upon myself to include people of color in these classic scenarios.”
Cox’s photograph, “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” ignited a maelstrom of controversy when it was shown in the exhibit Committed to the Image at the Brooklyn Museum in 2001. It was a remake of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” with a nude Cox sitting in for Jesus Christ, surrounded by all black disciples, except for Judas who was white.
Many Roman Catholics were outraged at the photograph and New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani called for the forming of a commission to set “decency standards” to keep such works from being shown in any New York museum that received public funds.
In 2006 Cox exhibited her series Queen Nanny of the Maroons at the Jamaican Biennial shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica. The body of work was awarded the Aaron Matalon Award, the highest honor given to any artist exhibited in the biennial.
Renee Cox continues to push the envelop in her work, questioning society and the roles it gives to blacks and women with her elaborate scenarios and imaginative visuals that offend some and exhilarate others.
Feminist Artist Statement
My main concern is the deconstruction of stereotypes and the empowerment of women.
I believe that images of women in the media are distorted and women are imprisoned by those unrealistic representations of the female body. This distortion crosses all ethnic lines and devalues all women. I am interested in taking the stereotypical representations of women and turning them upside down, for their empowerment.
That said, the main inspiration for my work comes from my life experiences. I use myself as a conduit for my photographs because I think that working with the self is the most honest representation of being. I am working toward regaining a “self-love,” not a narcissism, for the black female body as articulated by bell hooks in her book Sisters of the Yam. Slavery stripped black men and women of their dignity and identity and that history continues to have an adverse affect on the African American psyche.
The question for me is where am I at now in my life? I was the first pregnant woman in the Whitney Independent Study Program, as result of this I compelled into a new body of work called The Yo-Mama Series (pregnant and proud). From there I created a superhero named Raje, whose mission was to educate all children about African American history.
When I turned 40 the “Catherine Deneuve Syndrome” set in. In France a woman’s sexuality is allowed to mature, whereas in the United States women are only allowed to be sexual beings until age 39 and then are relegated to the background. As a result my series American Family was created. The body of work was a rebellion against all of the pre-ordained roles I am supposed to maintain: dutiful daughter, diminutive wife, and doting mother.
In 2002 I became more introspective and decided to look toward other female role models. I found a warrior, a liberator of her people, Queen Nanny Of the Maroons. In the 18th Century Nanny of the Maroons was a military expert and symbol of unity and strength to her people. Throughout time, the legend and spirit of Nanny of the Maroons, the only female among Jamaica’s national heroes, continues to inspire those with a desire for independence and the spirit to achieve it. I named my last body of work in her honor.
“The inner voice is your ancestors whispering in your ear.”