In 1992, feminist artist Lorraine O'Grady published what many have called the first-ever article of cultural criticism on the black female body. "She is jezebel and mammy, prostitute and female eunuch, the two in one," O'Grady wrote in the seminal essay Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity. Petra Collins and Madelyne Beckles — two friends, collaborators, and contemporary artists challenging the representational dichotomy that still plagues women's bodies today — were born the same year the essay was published. Next week, Collins and Beckles will bring the groundbreaking work firmly into the now with a three-hour live tableau performance in celebration of the female form, presented as part of MoMA's PopRally series. The performance will confront the veneration and degradation of women's bodies throughout art history. And it all stems from the artists' Instagram-era remix of a famous Manet painting — depicting a reclining white woman and her black servant — that Collins snapped around two years ago.
"We started by taking the photograph of Madelyne inspired by Manet's Olympia for a different project that fell through," Collins and Beckles explain to i-D. "We've been trying to get it off the ground forever, and when the opportunity with MoMA came up, it was the perfect place to speak to traditions of art history, and gave us a platform to think in a more grandiose way about it and include other amazing talent." That talent includes costume designer Zara Mirkin and Brooklyn's own Junglepussy, who will perform her empowering rap anthems live at the museum. Collins has also enlisted Beckles, Grace Miceli, and Aleia Murawski to create a "digital salon" of short Instagram videos to interrogate the art history canon in a 2017 context. "I think it was important to us to create an art show that is both IRL and URL," says Collins, "a show that transcends the institution and could ultimately change it."
Beckles's video Let Her Eat Grapes takes Dutch still life as its jump-off point. She aims to subvert the traditional style's hypocritical exclusion of "other" genders, races, and sexual identities by inserting the black female body into the work. "This is meant to illuminate the tension between aestheticising the abundance that appears in the domestic sphere," she explains, "while the Dutch were capitalising off of black bodies through slavery at the same point in history." Murawski's Worms will explore the intersection of fears and desires, while Miceli has created a series of animations inspired by "finding solace in celebrating traditionally dismissed feminine objects." Maybe it's lucky that first project fell through, because now feels like a pretty perfect time to be celebrating the agency and diversity of modern women.
PopRally Presents Petra Collins: In Search of Us is on at MoMA on March 18, 2017 at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased here.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Petra Collins