This is post is by Sally Deskins.
Wanda Ewing recently left for a three-week artist residency at Proyecto’ Ace, an independent, nonprofit artist-in-residency visual arts center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 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-Omaha, Ewing is well known for her “Black as Pitch, Hot as Hell” series of paintings and prints depicting large black pin-up girls, exploring how race factors into society’s definition of feminine beauty. Her work does span the spectrum; including more subdued women such as those in her “Black Catalogue” series, of simple silhouettes in thoughtful poses.
Locally her work, recently shown at RNG Gallery in Omaha and the Museum of Nebraska-Art in Kearney, tends to raise eyebrows at its unabashed boldness, but elsewhere, said Ewing, as her work is represented on both coasts, it is sometimes said to be not extreme enough.
Since graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of Iowa respectively, the Omaha native has been helping shake-up the local scene, paving the way for women artists wanting to come out of their shell, earning multiple local and national awards and fellowships. In April she curated the “Les Femmes Folles” show at RNG Gallery, including five known and unknown regional female artists (Leslie Diuguid, Ewing, Rebecca Herskovitz, Jaime Lamaster and Lauren van Wyke). The result was jaw dropping and breathtaking at once, each of the women contributing their own interpretation of the female relationship with the body.
Her latest series, “Video Grrrlzzz,” inspired by the story of Karrine Steffans, one of the first American hip-hop video models and author of Confessions of a Video Vixen (2005), has proved a bit too racy for gallery shows even outside of the Midwest. Ewing’s series include images of barely-clad black women with punching-bag heads, a metaphor for how women have been treated in the hip-hop industry. One gallery rejected Ewing’s work for a celebratory hip-hop exhibition because it wasn’t pro-hip-hop, according to their response.
Very few galleries are risk takers; a lot of galleries at least in the city, don’t take on work that is challenging because they don’t know how to sell it. But honestly it can be done, I sell my work…sometimes, like here, if its not considered beautiful or beautifully done, then its not of value…I know my work has a certain energy or quality that might appear as unrefined…but that is not the extent that I want my work to look like, either…you’ve got to develop the skill of when to listen and when not to. – Ewing
She’s really excited to continue building on “Video Grrrlzzz” in Buenos Aires with life-size figures using fabric such as vinyl and leather, with punching bags for heads and puppet strings. She wants them to be three-dimensional one day, but for now this is her next step in the series about the women in hip-hop videos: are they taken advantage of or are they in control?
Though, according to the artist, hip-hop is not a culture she’s active in, she heard about Stephens, who got the nick-name “Superhead” and let everything out about the sexism and misogynism in the industry in her tell-all books. For example, said Ewing, these women would work for hours, dancing, bumping and grinding, showing their bodies for these hip-hop artists’ videos (who claim “the women make the video”) and not get paid.
Listening to this, these images just came to me; these beautiful bodies in bathing suits, but instead of heads they have punching bags and puppet strings, that is how I got the idea. Because it represents psychological assault. It is, it’s a mind-fuck; if a woman in that industry stands up for herself because she feels taken advantage of, they’ll just blackball her, and then no-one will use her because she’s a trouble-maker. – Ewing
So, is it relevant to discuss such female issues? Should we not be separating ourselves further out from men by talking about being a woman? Below is the start of Wanda and my conversation about just that:
Sally Deskins: So, Les Femmes Folles was a show you curated at RNG last month (April 2011) with five females…you, Rebecca Herskovitz…
Wanda Ewing (WE): Yes, there were five total; Rebecca Herskovitz, Leslie Duiguild, Jamie Lamaster, Lauren Van Wkye…. I wanted it to be small… The first exhibition you did [Body as Text at RNG Gallery, September 2010] was great, there was a ton of work. But I just thought it would be really cool to have less artists so that they could show more work. I also wanted to show some artists that people weren’t familiar with…
SD: Yes, they were all so strong, though I hadn’t heard of them all, I was so inspired and impressed. I thought, I bet there are other female artists out there that I don’t know about that are super strong. So, I decided to start my blog with a few other writers [to showcase local female artists] and have received a lot of support. But I have also received some criticism.
WE: What kind of criticism?
SD: That it could be irrelevant to separate women out [for the blog] and it could possibly be negative by omitting male artists. I see on one hand women might not want to be separated out, being called “female artists;” but on the other hand, why not celebrate female artists?
WE: It’s a double-edged sword. If you’re anything but a white-male, straight artist, you’re always going to be “the other;” whatever separates you is going to define you initially. For myself, “black female artist;” those things come first. They don’t just say “artist Wanda Ewing,” they say “African American artist” or “black female artist”. But I do think it is totally relevant, because let’s just face it, that glass ceiling was installed with perma-ceilant. It’s not going anywhere. I think there’s definitely more room for anyone to work around. Let’s face it, there are people that are still omitted. If you go to any website, look at the ratio of women to men. If you want to break it down further, break it down by race; let’s look at gays-straight–I think the people that tend to get bugged the most. The criticism for having an all-women-art blog is probably the people that are just threatened by that. I don’t know how else to say it.
SD: How could it be negative? It seems only positive to me, to celebrate women artists?
WE: Well, have you heard of the artist Ida Applebroog?… she said she would never show in an all-woman gallery or an all-women group show because she doesn’t want to be “ghetto-ized”… that’s a way to look at it. However, I think that these things exist for a reason because if they didn’t a lot of artists wouldn’t get shown. If these venues weren’t in place, too… I look at it as a resource. I think you’d be hard-pressed to have a website devoted to all-white male artists. Because historically, until 1940s or 1930s, women were largely overlooked.
SD: I think maybe they still are a little.
WE: I feel like, why is it so surprising and shocking for there to have an all-women’s show in the 21st century? I just think that people get threatened easily when it’s not their demographic that they can fit into; they feel like they are being left out. Maybe the criticism is from someone who has never had to deal with that. If you had the freedom to show in any venue that you wanted to, it comes to a shock probably… So yes, it is definitely relevant.
To see the start of the Video Grrrlzz series and other art by Ewing, to read her blog or to buy prints, visit Wandaewing.com.
Sally Deskins is a mother and wife from Omaha, Nebraska. She is a freelance writer, figure model and arts events organizer and also just started a blog supporting Nebraska Women in Art called Les Femmes Folles. For fun, she plays with her kids, dreams about traveling (travels a little), watches bad movies with her husband, tries to catch a few art events and read all that she can.