While preparing for her seventh group show in 2010, Wanda Ewing was kind enough to make time for conversation with me. Exploring contemporary culture through personal narrative, Ewing recontextualizes images from popular culture, addressing issues of race, beauty standards, sexuality and identity. What I found captivating about Ewing’s depictions of being black and female was her treatment of territories of duality. And not just by working with wallpaper and wood (implying the stage of domestic interiors). Ewing’s prints have a humorous insolence at those culturally safe female personalities—the exhibitionist (pin-ups) and the demure (wallflowers).
An established artist in her hometown of Omaha, Ewing is the first person of color to be hired full time and tenured in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Ewing’s work is part of A Greater Spectrum: African American Artists of Nebraska 1912-2010. Featuring 91 artworks by 22 artists, this historic exhibition is the first comprehensive survey documenting the arts of African American artists with ties to Nebraska. Ewing has exhibited her art nationally and internationally, but returned home to make a positive impact on a community she has high hopes for. We talked at length about being a Black artist in Omaha, feminism, body image, race relations. We end with a brief comment on the current censorship of the Smithsonian’s NPG in Washington. What follows is an edited interview with Wanda Ewing.
Patricia: When I see your Wallflower Pin-ups, the wallpaper creates an instant intimacy of forbidden desire. Floral wallpaper implies domestic privacy while the female figures clearly depict sexual flirtation. In Western Art’s systematized bias, Black women have been depicted as voracious sexual creatures whose rationale is to be questioned or dismissed. The Black female body has been fodder for desires born of anthropological scrutiny and an affirmative action of display that mostly, continues serving the gaze of exoticism and/or otherness. Selected areas of the body are isolated as idealized, exoticizing fragments rather than a whole and wholesome figure. But your pin-up girls… they move acrobatically without caring who gazes at them or why.
Wanda Ewing: I think it’s human nature to be curious about individuals different from you. The issue lies in how it manifests. If you are told something is taboo, it will either make you more attracted or more repelled. That sums up a lot of history. When the black female was “discovered”, it was first displayed as an oddity (Hottentots Venus), then quickly moved to something that needed to be de-sexualized and shunned (mammy). How could something other than white and European be considered beautiful?
When I created this series, it was my intention to take the negative aspects of how the black female form is portrayed and place it in a positive light. Although it’s the 21st century and attitudes surrounding the subject of beauty and acceptance have shifted, the black female form is still considered undesirable unless it has been altered to incorporate Western ideas of beauty.
I wanted my pin-ups to symbolize self-assurance. Although they have been compartmentalized in a box against their will, they take ownership of the space and display amazing strength and flexibility. I also wanted to make work about features not largely represented: darker skin, short natural hair — without being an anomaly or a stereotype. Just simply make depictions of beautiful, sexy black women.
Patricia: I love Déjeuner Avec Mes Amis, which references Monet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbre. I’m curious about where they are, and what this piece is about for you.
Wanda: This is a much older work from a series I started while at graduate school in Iowa City. The idea was to appropriate existing images and alter them enough to place them in a different context while keeping most of the initial composition. I wanted to use artworks that were largely familiar. There was a theme as well—exploring my sexual relationships with white men. This piece reverses roles by having two clothed black females and one nude, white male. They are having a picnic in a cemetery (a photo I took of Père Lachaise in Paris). Looking at this work now, it definitely has a more sinister undertone that I didn’t see at the time.
The nude figure in the foreground reads wonderfully gender neutral to me, which seems like a smart update on Monet’s piece.
He is male, but yes, there is some androgyny going on. I think that’s my projecting into my image. I’ve always felt that I’m viewed in this manner. I find androgynous individuals most interesting. This piece allows for viewers to come to their own conclusion.
Black As Pitch, Hot As Hell and Wallflower Pin-Ups—elaborate on the choices between the wood and the wallpaper. If the square represents a box, how are your girls differently ‘boxed’ by wood or wallpaper?
The Black As Pitch series were created first. Relief printmaking is my first love when it comes to creating art and it seemed natural for me to incorporate that love into painting. I actually wanted the paintings to look more like the work on paper with big floral designs. The idea of the box translates differently. Viewers get a better sense of a box with the paintings because of the material being used. A friend of mine observed that the figures on the Wallflower Pin-Ups seemed trapped by the floral patterns. I liked that, because it referenced attitudes of beauty for women in the 50’s.
On Black Catalogue, you mentioned that the question here is, do people see a black figure or a silhouette. For me it depends on texture. If blackness has texture, I perceive it as presence, therefore: a figure. If dark areas are flat and seem like a cut-out, I see silhouettes: a knocked-out foreground—which basically is the experience of minorities; and/or majorities perceived as ‘lesser than’.
I posed that question because it was appropriate. When it comes to figurative art, I think most people, whether they realize it or not, are more likely to gravitate towards a work that has a white figure than any other. It’s interesting, because a judgment is being made. If a person is interested in figurative work that depicts an individual outside their demographic, that person could be accused of having a fetish. Someone may first look at these paintings and see a black figure and think one way. But when they find out that they are collaged figures from Anthropologie clothing catalogs (white figures painted black) that might make them more interested because they have a way to identity with the work. I am making an assumption that this experience is from a white viewer. Would the opposite happen with a black viewer? Hard to say.
Does the term feminist have relevance to your work? I see it as feminist-aware work, because it stems from a clearly defined female experience, transcending cultural mores. I see that in your work, but is that something you personally identify with?
It’s totally relevant. When I first started making art, I used to not want to be called a feminist. I thought when most people heard my work being described or myself being described as feminist, the assumption was made that I am a man-hating lesbian who makes vagina art. That totally tells you what I knew about feminism at the time.
Many are those who assume that. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be perceived as militant, simply because I’m not—another prevailing assumption. I’ve always thought eminism’s diversity is its strength; its downfall the inherited ‘pre-existing conditions’ of outsider perceptions.
I assumed feminism was strictly militant because that was what I mainly encountered, when I first met artists who claimed to be feminist. I agree with you in that feminism is at its most powerful due to diversity. Feminism includes gay, straight, women, men, diverse races and cultures…defining feminism is like trying to define God to me. Its meaning varies from person to person.
Your most recent work, Half-Dolls, is as poetic and poignant as it is heavy and loaded with cultural reference. Describe why you’re creating them to look this way…and they are beautiful.
Wanda: Thank you. I really like this series. It’s not where I need it to be just yet, but they’re getting there. I see this series as a more personal narrative. They have sweet expressions and are happy, but are incomplete. I think they sum up how I feel about my life currently.
A while ago, I read an article in Time magazine about how more and more black women are winding up single. The article stated that the more education you have, if you are 35 or older and make “x” amount salary-wise, you were more than likely going to be unsuccessful at being married. Well, I turned 40 this year, received tenure at the university I teach at and hold two master’s degrees. Oh, and I’m still single. I am that article’s demographic. My half dolls illustrate how I feel about it. I’m happy despite an outwardly appearance of being “incomplete”; not having what society says I should have or look like. It’s a good thing to push up against.
As the first full-time, tenured professor of color in the Art Department of a major State University—how has your presence impacted students and curriculum?
My achievement has made a huge impact on the department. Since my hire, there has been an increase in minority students taking art classes. I’m seeing more students of gay orientation as well. An art department, in my opinion, should be one of the most diverse areas of a university, so it’s about time!
For an institution that has been around since 1908, seems like a long time to diversify. To me, it’s obvious what that says about race relations! But what does that reveal about actual cultural diversity in Omaha?
We value our cultural roots as long as each culture knows its place. We do have a Black Studies Department, after all. Whenever friends have visited me here, they usually comment on how segregated the city is. It’s true. There is still a lot of politics occurring here that keep Omaha this way. There is no one group at fault. Everyone has a hand in it. In order to change it, it has to come down to individual attitudes. UNO should be and is the major metropolitan institution for the city. Its employees from administrators down to the maintenance crew should reflect that. But that’s easier said than done.
Art is often treated as a commodity or a luxury, instead of a tool for social progress. Asian, Black, Hispanic, Women, LGBTQ voices are few among standard Art Department dialogue. As a black woman artist, I think its so important that you have a place in shaping a future discourse. How do you feel about being a “first”?
This is definitely a huge can of worms. It’s something no one has acknowledged outside of friends and family. It’s been a challenge, but I’m glad I made it through because of what it means for the big picture. When I was an undergraduate here in Nebraska, all of my professors were white. Sure, there were some women, but all were white. I was also the only black student in the majority my classes.
Talk about a situation that makes you feel self-conscious! I felt at times that my professors expected me to do work about subjects that spoke specifically to my race. If I deviated from that expectation, there were issues. When we look at the contemporary art world, most of the celebrated black artists make work that fall into the same few categories: Hip/Hop, slavery, poverty or use stereotyped black imagery. It’s such a tenuous line to walk because I don’t believe you have to be in the same demographic to learn from someone, but there are some cases where your background differs in such a way that there can never be any full comprehension or complete shared experience.
There is also the issue of tolerance. I’ve had to sit through some awful comments. But being a part of this community is important to me, because if I can continue to make work as an artist and earn a place at an institution where I can incite positive change, I am showing others (minorities) that they too can do the same. Being the first to do something is not always glamorous like an athlete breaking a world record, or a pop star winning awards. It can be very isolating and lonely. And trust it, the flip side of this is getting a lot of grief from people within your community. I’ve been called an Uncle Tom, Bougie or a sell-out. It hurt, but what can you do.
So there wasn’t a write-up in the local paper about the historical milestone? Did the university acknowledge this in any way?
No and no. I received my official you-are-tenured letter, but that was it. I think highlighting an achievement like this could also be an embarrassment to the institution on some levels.
What were the circumstances surrounding what you define as your greatest creative accomplishment to date?
I think I’ve had 2 strokes of genius in the last 7 years. They were the woodcut series of large dresses and my Black As Pitch, Hot As Hell pin-up girl series. Work from these series have been accepted into some really great shows which brought a new audience to my work.
The next show you’re participating in, A Greater Spectrum: African American Artists of Nebraska, “aims to create a deeper understanding of the power of art for personal expression and interpersonal connection between people of diverse backgrounds.” Isn’t that the goal of art in society, to enlighten existing dialogue?
Art has the power to make connections by transcending divisions made socially or racially. Although my work expresses my experiences from the perspective of being black and female, my work is more inclusive if you take the moment to digest what you’re seeing. I mean, do we really have to be in the same demographic to share the same experience? I think not.
I don’t know a thing about the Black/African American art scene in Nebraska.
There isn’t much of one! The curator at the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA), Teliza Rodriguez, is really taking a risk by putting on a comprehensive exhibition solely devoted to Black artists who have or are living and working in Nebraska now. I’m very excited that my work is included and will be among some good company. Most people are pretty amazed that a) I am from Omaha; and b) I’m still in Omaha.
When I was growing up here, I always wanted to be an artist. I didn’t get a whole lot of enthusiastic support from family or friends because most people can’t imagine how to make art for a living. There are a few more brown faces at art openings, but you can still count them on one hand. It’s important for me to be here because I do have some home pride and I have the desire to be a role model for black kids wanting the same thing I wanted when I was their age. I like showing that you can have an art career and navigate it from here. You just have to work it differently.
What do you think about the current censorship surrounding the Hide/Seek show in Washington? If an artist had made a video of a statue of the white Virgin Mary covered in ants, do you think there would be the same level of conservative outrage?
I think if it were the Virgin covered in ants, no one would have made a peep. That whole situation is pretty ridiculous! They’ve also lost some credibility and have a terrible precedent. Is the National Portrait Gallery prepared to remove every work that offends someone for whatever reason? If so, they might as well close their doors. The beauty of art is what it brings to the individual. It holds a mirror up and challenges each person to define their standards, creates discourse and educates us. To take that away, to give in to any one group is to do a disservice to the global art community.
Wanda Ewing’s latest work can be seen at A Greater Spectrum: African American Artists of Nebraska 1912-2010 exhibited until April 3, 2011 at The Museum of Nebraska Art, 2401 Central Avenue, Kearney, NE 68847.