COLUMBIA, SC — Renée Cox made her name first as a model, and soon thereafter as a fashion photographer working with fashion glossies including Essence, Glamour, and Seventeen. As a result, her friend Spike Lee asked her to shoot the poster for School Daze which led to her creating album covers for Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers.
After turning thirty and having her first child, Cox decided that she wanted to leave a more enduring and meaningful legacy and began channeling her creative energy into an artistic career. In the early 1990s, she made a splash in the art world as a provocateur with her larger-than-life artistic personas that were candid explorations of racial and gender politics. During her first pregnancy, Cox controversially bared her soul and nude body as a black Madonna in her mid-90s photograph series titled Yo Mama. Subsequent bodies of work included a photo series of the blaxploitation superhero Raje and of Queen Nanny, which was inspired by the 18th-century, maroon leader and Jamaican national hero.
Cox’s latest show, Soul Culture, at the Columbia Museum of Art is in many ways a continuation of and yet radical departure from her past work. Cox, who draws inspiration from own her subjectivity and physical presence, continues to use her body as a medium for creative expression. For example, when Cox began spending more time in Chappaqua — a town in Westchester County, New York with a black population of less than one% — she was inspired to make herself the protagonist in The Discreet Charm of the Bougie series.
In Soul Culture, Cox is again front and center, but also directs our attention to a cast of colorful characters who include her peers, protégés, and sons Tosh and Ziggy. Many will recognize artists Kerry James Marshall, Derrick Adams, and Rafia Santana, actor Victor Strand, curator and scholar Shantrelle P. Lewis, and model Ajak Deng among others.
Cox took their photographs, duplicated them, sliced them into myriad pieces, and reassembled them Frankenstein-style into a psychedelic visual bacchanal. The pieces started off flat, but Cox later added dimension collaging parts of each piece to overlap each other and sit a few inches off the surfaces of their substrates. Though mounted, they are sculptural kaleidoscopes of body parts and hair extensions.
This series was influenced by fractal fluency, which is the pleasing effect one experiences when seeing a repeating pattern found in nature (e.g., nautilus shells, pinecones, lightning, snowflakes, etc.). A similar symmetry is found in the human body (e.g. lungs, blood vessels, the brain, etc.). Scientists have shown that fractal patterns are not only aesthetically pleasing, but have meditative power. This “sacred geometry,” as Cox describes it, has been found in many cultures around the world since time immemorial, but she was particularly inspired by the fractals in African artwork and textiles.
For example, the elements in “An Infinite Spirit (Black Girl Magic)” (2016) are bilaterally identical —much like Rorschach inkblots. One could draw a line down the middle and fold the piece in half, revealing kaleidoscopic mirrored images.
The political message in Soul Culture is subtler than her past work, even zen. It is as if Cox wants to transmit a message of oneness and unity through the meshing and interconnection of human bodies. She believes that we can reach a higher level of consciousness by reconnecting with the symmetry of the human body. Ultimately, Cox is promoting unity and the valorization of the human form in all its permutations, but particularly in black and/or female bodies.
The show culminates with a video that brings the fractal symmetry into motion. The piece, titled “Sacred Geometry,” is filled with bodies writhing in hypnotic unison. Narrated in her signature raspy voice, Cox solemnly commands viewers to bring their attention to human mandalas floating across the screen.
The history of people of color is marred by disenfranchisement, distortion, and disfigurement. The show offers alternative ways of seeing black bodies. As Cox has always done, she hopes to bring a new, more positive view of the black body, a step towards reversing the trenchant racism to which people of color have long been subjected.