African American Women and Photography
Renee Cox. "Olympia's Boyz," from The American Family Series, 2001; C-print. Courtesy of the artist.
Renee Cox (b. 1960) was born in Jamaica, but she grew up in Queens, New York, where her family relocated shortly after she was born. She earned a B.A. in film studies from Syracuse University, but pursued a career in fashion after graduating. She first worked as a fashion editor for Glamour magazine, then as a photographer for such magazines as the Paris-based Votre Beauté and Vogue Homme, and for New York-Based Seventeen, among others. After having her first son, she switched from commercial photography to fine art photography, and returned to school at Adrian Piper's alma mater, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where she earned an M.F.A. in photography. From the beginning, Cox's mission was to subvert racial and gender stereotypes and present new visual representations of African Americans. She was particularly inspired by the eroticization of black bodies in the American cultural imagination. Unlike Du Bois, whose subjects dressed in the most modest yet fashionable clothes of the era, Cox confronted viewers with her sexuality. She serves as her own model in most of her photographs, often posing nude or in leather bondage costumes. She stares directly at the camera as if daring viewers to look at her as unabashedly as she is posed. Many of her images quote works by master painters, most notably Manet's "Olympia" (1863). However, in Cox's version, "Olympia's Boyz" (2001), she reclines on a skein of Congolese Kuba cloth, while her bi-racial sons stand by as her attendants, dressed as African warriors of an indeterminate nation, spears and head wraps included. Her implications touch all aspects of the encounter between Europe and Africa, but most specifically the sexual exchanges that developed as a result of that encounter. In replacing the original painting's black maid with her sons from an interracial marriage to a white man, she suggests that black sexuality is and has always been intertwined with white sexuality. She also suggests that the white masculine gaze represented by the vantage point in Manet's painting is as much about the sexual fantasies projected onto Olympia's black maid as it is about the fetishization of Olympia's porcelain white skin. Although Cox troubles the relationship between the white masculine gaze and black bodies–in other photographs from her "America Family" series, she also addresses fixations on black machismo and sexuality–there is a joyful and honorific tone in her photographs that suggest she celebrates black sexuality as something that African Americans should neither hide nor be ashamed of.