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Posing Beauty: Behind the Scenes

“How many of you have been here before?” Nine weeks into the run of the exhibition Posing Beauty in African American Culture, I have come to expect that at least a handful of students will raise their hand. Some have been to the show three and four times. “Don’t worry,” I say, “every tour is different.”

Posing Beauty is a large exhibition of photographs that explores issues of body image, identity, gender, and race. I have lead tours of Posing Beauty for nine different college and school groups, including Africana Studies courses, a Women’s Studies course, and an African dance class. And, indeed, every tour—every conversation—in that gallery is different. Rather than providing a generic procession through the gallery, I try to tailor each tour to the topics being taught in class.

“In our conversations, I invite you to draw connections between your class and the photographs in this exhibition.”  With these introductory remarks, I try to make the link between coursework and the gallery explicit in the first couple minutes of my tour. For example, when the Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course came to the museum, I organized my tour around photographs that I thought would resonate with the week’s assignment to read Sandra Bartky’s essay “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” (1988). In this article, Bartky explores femininity (gestures, postures, movements) as an artifice imposed on women. Using Foucault’s ideas about discipline of the body, she examines the effects these imposed artifices on female identity and subjectivity. The tie-ins to Posing Beauty seemed so clear to me. For example, I decided to have the group talk about Petrushka Bazin, Corset from “Women Wore White, Men Wore Black Affair,” 2004 which features a male videographer surreptitiously taking a picture of a voluptuous woman in a dance club. The class talked about how the image dramatized the objectification of women by the “male gaze.” The picture seemed to me a perfect visual articulation of Bartky’s claim that, “woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other.”

The best thing about making connections between our art and the course readings is that the students are already experts on the exhibition even before they enter the museum. They can use the reading to process the meanings in the photograph and vice versa. This makes for great conversations in front of the artwork. I try to engender conversations that link coursework and the exhibition by employing the museum’s inquiry-based methodology to tour guides. I learned from the Director of Education and Visitor Experience Cynthia Way that a tour should not be a monologue. Instead, my responsibility is to pose open questions for which there is no right answer, but hopefully several thoughtful and interesting responses.

Since my tours are essentially about facilitating a conversation, I really never know where the discussion will go. For example, when Professor Manigault-Bryant’s “Race in American Life” course came to the exhibition to talk about connections between Posing Beauty and Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, I was nervous about leading a discussion about Lyle Ashton Harris’ Miss America because it’s such an enigmatic work. Luckily, the professor and his students had taken complete ownership of the exhibition. Students sat before the work and the conversation that unfolded was fantastic. One student drew a correlation between Pecola Breedlove and the photograph, observing that the woman in the photograph looked as though she were attempting to take on white identity by wearing white paint on her face, but ended up looking as though her true identity was being erased, much as Pecola would daydream about her own dematerialization and her desire for blue eyes ultimately lead to her mental disintergration.

Not every tour has been a grand slam. Some conversations have been slow and stilted. Ironically, some of the art classes have had the hardest time connecting to the show. While the photographic medium offers an entry point, many of those students come less prepared to grapple with issues of stereotype, race, and identity. But ultimately these awkward silences were as productive as exuberant conversations. To pose difficult questions and struggle with answers is a beautiful thing.

- Dalila Scruggs, Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts


Above Images
:  Lyle Ashton Harris, Miss America, 1987-88, Collection of the Studio Museum in Harleml Anonymous gift (03.6.1). Petrushka Bazin, Corset, 2005; courtesy of the photographer. Carrie Mae Weems, I Looked and Looked to See What so Terrified You, 2006; courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

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