Experience Renée Cox’s Baby Back at the Delaware Art Museum

October 24, 2019

The below depicts the artist, Renée Cox, reclining on a sunny yellow chaise longue. Her naked backside faces the viewer as she gazes over her shoulder. Her bright red heels and the whip in her hand nod to sexual submission and control. At first glance Renée Cox’s Baby Back may seem erotic or even pornographic, until you consider the long history of male artists using female nudes as their subjects. In this self-portrait Cox is directly referencing famous paintings such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Édouard Manet’s Olympia, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque, all depicting unabashedly naked women. In the case of Venus of Urbino, Titian completed the work as a marriage gift from the Duke of Urbino to his wife. The eroticism of the painting was intended to remind the young wife of her obligation to please her husband and bear him children. Cox’s self-portrait is commenting on these same female obligations that have continued into today’s society. Her work causes controversy in a way that these historical paintings don’t because Cox has taken control of the display of her own body.

Originally part of her American Family Series, Baby Back was first exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 2001. The American Family Series was described as an “exhibition of desire,” particularly that of African American desire for self-representation. Cox paired recent photographs and video illustrations with those culled from her family’s albums. Self-portraits like Baby Back were juxtaposed with those of her as a child in a Catholic school uniform and communion dress. These pairings were meant to shed light on the dilemma between pleasure and prohibition inherent within female existence. Institutions such as family and church place restrictions on female pleasure, yet women’s roles as wives and mothers bring their sexuality to the forefront. Renée Cox, over the course of her lifetime, has assumed the role of dutiful daughter, wife capable of sexual pleasure, a mother of two sons, and an advocate that has worked to contest racial and gender biases. With the American Family Series, Cox was demonstrating society’s fear of women, specifically black women, who derive pleasure from their feminine bodies. 

Baby Back, from “American Family”, 2001. Renée Cox (b. 1960). Archival digital print, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist. © Renée Cox.

Baby Back is currently on view at the Delaware Art Museum as part of the exhibition Posing Beauty in African American Culture (October 19, 2019 – January 26, 2020). This show explores the contested ways in which African and African American beauty have been represented in historical and contemporary contexts. The exhibition was curated by Deborah Willis, an artist and professor as well as the Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging as Tisch School of the Arts of New York University. Over 100 works have travelled around the country and now made their way here to Wilmington. Cox’s Baby Back appears alongside other works of photography that contend with issues of body image. Following the “black is beautiful” movement, photographers such as Cox wanted to create imagery that represented their communities and experiences.  The red patent-leather heels and the whip make reference to BDSM subcultures, yet they also evoke the long history of African American enslavement. In an interview for Aperture magazine Cox is quoted as insisting, “If anybody’s going to be using the whip, it’s going to be me. It’s not going to be used on me. I’ll be using it. Okay?”

If you wish to experience Renée Cox’s Baby Back in person please join us for the Inside Look Series. As part of this series Emily Shartrand, a PhD candidate at the University of Delaware and current Graduate Fellow at the Delaware Art Museum, will be leading dialogues on Baby Back.  These dialogues will be held on Friday, November 22 at 12pm and Sunday, November 24 at 2pm in the galleries. Posing Beauty in African American Culture is curated by Deborah Willis and organized by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, Pasadena, California. This exhibition is made possible in Delaware by the Johannes R. and Betty P. Krahmer American Art Exhibition Fund. Additional support is provided, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. The Division promotes Delaware arts events on www.DelawareScene.com.

Emily Shartrand

#teamebony. “Beyond the Selfie: Renée Cox on the Power of Shooting Black Bodies.” Ebony, March 26, 2014. https://www.ebony.com/entertainment/renee-cox-talks-beyond-the-selfie-photos-323/
Cox, Renée and Jo Anna Isaak. Renée Cox: American Family. New York: Robert Miller Gallery, 2001.
McMillan, Uri. “A Taste of Power: Renée Cox in Conversation with Uri McMillan.” Aperture 225, 64-71. https://aperture.org/blog/renee-cox-taste-power/


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