Making socio-political, identity-based art is a tricky proposition.
Too much specificity in the piece immediately ties it to a time and place, eliminating any chance that it will have meaning beyond the “statement” that the artist is attempting to make. Often, especially in art based on racial identity or gender politics, that statement can be preachy and more than a little pompous.
In “Bougie,” her exhibition at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Wanda Ewing finds a way through that quagmire using a tool that guarantees the imagery will connect beyond its specific time and punctures any preachiness or pomposity. That tool is humor, and it pervades the series of fictional magazine covers that is at the show’s center.
The exhibition’s tongue-in-cheek sensibility starts with its title and concept.
“Bougie,” pronounced ‘boo-shee,’ is slang for bourgeois and is an insult in the black community, a word thrown at those who are seen as uppity or, in Ewing’s word, “too good” for those around them.
Called “bougie” when she was growing up, even though she’d never considered herself close to that, Ewing has turned the word around, using it as the title of a fictitious magazine she has dreamed up.
Bougie, the imaginary publication, is along the line of Cosmopolitan or Essence, a women’s magazine that is contradictory at its heart. Those magazines are designed to empower independent women, but perpetuate societal notions of beauty that trap females into specific roles. They talk about inner beauty, but emphasize the exterior and so on.
To make her point, Ewing, an art professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has created a year’s worth of oversized magazine covers. The covers — reductive linocuts, acetate and vinyl lettering — are arranged in a chronological grid and cover most of one wall in the Sheldon main floor gallery, where they are located.
Each of the covers has a head-and-shoulders image of a black woman in a typical magazine pose. Those pictures, which Ewing creates in the same manner as the acrylic paintings that accompany the covers, make part of her point. But much of the power and humor of “Bougie” comes from the text on the covers.
The February edition, for example, has a woman with very light hair leaning back. The headline for the story inside “BLONDE is the new BLACK.” Above that line reads “Look At Me Now,” below it “How to marry a millionaire” and on the opposite side of the page: “Diva, Diva, Diva!”
It’s hard to miss Ewing’s message there, but equally hard to resist her satiric humor. That sensibilty pervades all the covers, which are lettered with headlines, such as “Not Hood enough? 25 Ways to get Ghetto Fabulous!,” “Date a man with no job?!! Over my dead body!!,” “Of course it’s your hair — you still have the receipt!” “Phatty, Phatt, To Die for!” and “Find your inner Barbie.”
The combination of text and imagery is a staple of contemporary art. But often when you’re forced literally to read an artwork, it falls short of being truly visual. Ewing’s covers, however, make full use of the combination of words and pictures. They look like they could be presentation covers for a new magazine, and they reward the reading with a laugh and, more importantly, a thought-provoking critique.
The rest of the exhibition provides context for the covers. An examination of black female body imagery, the show has two acrylic painting series.
“Hairdressing Dummy” is a four-painting collection that shows head, shoulders and sometimes breasts of women with varying hairstyles and positions, including a bald woman in the painting title “Beige.” The “Half Dolls” series depicts six dark black nudes from the waist up with sharp white outlining breasts, facial features, hands, etc.
The women in those paintings are clearly posing. But they also are just as obviously objectified, seen in pieces rather than as a whole. That then leads to examinations of the nature of attractiveness and its conflation with everything from fashion to pornography.
The latter can’t help but come to mind in looking at “Cornucopia,” a large painting of a woman cut off at the waist down, legs spread with flowers emerging from inside her. Again, there’s a distinct sexuality in the painting. But it is removed from reality, transported to another kind of vision of the female.
The combination of the covers and paintings makes “Bougie” a strongly feminist show. Ewing’s disarming humor, which can also be found in her artist’s statement that ends with the shopping tip to head directly to the sale rack, makes it particularly effective, addressing issues that are, at first, confined to black women but on reflection extend to our cultural views of all women and beauty.
Ewing will be at Sheldon today to talk about her exhibition. Her talk, titled “Pop, Shop and the Age of Me,” is scheduled for 2 p.m., and she’ll be at the gallery until 3:30 p.m. to answer questions about her work.
Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or email@example.com.