Black Women Film Directors, 1992

“The Cave: Lorraine O’Grady on Black Women Film Directors.” Column in Artforum Magazine, vol. XXX, no. 5, pp. 22-24, January 1992.

© Lorraine O’Grady

Written during a tentative “break-through” year for black women film directors, the article was a search for answers to the question, “Why are there so few even now?” It found the situation for black women to be an exaggeration of that for women in general.

The invisibility of black women has been much on my mind of late. Asked recently to speak on the topic “Can women artists take back the nude from a voyeuristic male gaze as a site to represent their own subjectivity?” I have to discard the premise: from mass culture to high culture, white women may have been objects of the fetishizing gaze, but black women have had only the blank stare. In fact we feel lucky when we get to take our clothes off. Manet’s Olympia, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, 1973-78, are landmarks in our unseeing erasure by both the multi-colored male and the white female. I believe in the mathematics of myth, which is why I’m always asking, How many black women in this anthology? in this exhibit? in this picture? What are they made to signify? Of the 39 places at Chicago’s dinner table, 35 are set with plates painted with vaginas that glow miraculously. Sojourner Truth, the only black guest, must make it without a pussy. She alone has a face, and not one but three: one screaming, one smiling, and one weeping a clichéd tear.1 And Manet’s Laura, fully dressed behind the nude and oh so white Olympia is two-in-one: she is Jezebel united with Mammy, the whore combined with the female eunuch, who can only escape from an undialectical fate by disappearing into the background drapery.

This kind of bookkeeping does wear me down, and over the years I’ve had to defend against it. For instance, I’ve learned to keep my news at one or two removes: I read the Sunday Times instead of the daily, The Nation instead of watching TV. There’s something consoling, when it finally lands on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, about having my festering intuition assume myth’s sharp impermeable shape. Last July a Times Magazine cover appeared with a mountain of black film directors, from the bottom to the top of the frame. Eight, with a missing figure. I can’t help myself. I start bookkeeping again. In a story that I count at 60 paragraphs, seven black women directors are barely listed in the second paragraph from the end.

I tell myself not to get into this, since I don’t see how I can be philosophical. But: who made the decision, the writer or the editor, not to discuss Euzhan Palcy, whose Sugar Cane Alley, 1983, and Dry White Season, were not only brilliant but profitable? And what about fully treating Julie Dash—the buzz for. ( … )

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