Art

Rich and Varied Visions of Black Female Glamor

Two exhibitions in St. Louis explore very different but complementary visions of how Black women have redefined glamor.

Dario Calmese, from the Amongst Friends. series (courtesy the artist and projects+gallery)
Dario Calmese, “no. 155” from the Amongst Friends. series (courtesy the artist and projects+gallery)

ST. LOUIS — Glamor has always been about conjuring and invoking a certain magic. Indeed, the origin of the word goes back to a Scottish term for a spell that afflicts one’s vision. Today the word can tend to connote some surface-level sheen at once bold and unattainable — an antidote to gravity, artifice without the art. And, to the extent that it has signified youth and privilege, feminine glamor has often been coded as White through images like Marilyn Monroe’s flying skirt over a New York subway grate.

Not so in two shows currently on view here: Mane ‘n Tail, curated by Katherine Simóne Reynolds, at the Luminary; and Amongst Friends., the first US solo exhibition for photographer Dario Calmese at projects+gallery. While Reynolds and Calmese appear to diverge in approach — the former critiquing the beauty products and standards targeted at women of color, the other celebrating the mad style of a sexagenarian Harlem socialite — the tensions in each show speak to, rather than against, each other. Both seem to ask, what is glamor, and how have Black women redefined its worth across time, place, and purpose?

“It is more than luxury; it is placing centuries of oppression on your shoulders just as you would a Comme des Garçons,” Reynolds told me. “It is fighting every colonized sense of being. It is Josephine, Patti, Tracy, Florence, Prince, Missy, Whitney, Bby Mutha, Luther, Angela, Lupita, and Donna.”

Abigail Lucien, still from "Gentle Treatment 1" (2018) (courtesy the artist)
Abigail Lucien, still from “Gentle Treatment 1” (2018) (courtesy the artist)

Investigating the intersections of class, race, and commerce within the culture of beauty supply stores targeting Black women that both limit and inform women’s creative power, Mane ‘n Tail features an array of female artists of color from across the nation — from Muslim, Indian American artist Baseera Khan to Ghanaian conceptual artist Yvonne Osei and Brooklyn-based performance artist Narcissister. Plumbing the depths of ethnic heritage, familial legacy, and sisterhood, the works on view both revel in the rites of the beauty supply industry while interrogating the cultural, economic, and racial inequities inherent to its profits.

“Advertising for relaxers tends to sell the idea of combing through the hair, being able to ‘manage’ your hair,” Reynolds said of Abigail Lucien’s video “Gentle Treatment 1” (2018), wherein anonymous silhouettes of Black women appear and disappear upon a lush tropical backdrop to the beat of marketing slogans. Birds chirp as waterfalls rush in what seems an ideal vacation spot — its palpable humidity at ironic odds with the maxim to, as Reynolds put it, “keep everything straight.”

Yvonne Osei, still from "EXTENSIONS" (2018) (courtesy the artist)
Yvonne Osei, still from “EXTENSIONS” (2018) (courtesy the artist)

In Yvonne Osei’s photograph “Ready, Set, Transform” (2018), four women braid indigo extensions into a fifth woman’s hair on a Ghanaian village corner. While the artist’s lens is welcome, it is clearly a foreign presence. “A lot of African-American women get their hair done by African women, but there’s the problematic language of getting your hair done ‘at the Africans,’” Reynolds said. A video of the same ritual plays on the north wall in “EXTENSIONS” (2018), the woman at center lost in her own private head space, glancing down at a smartphone, while the incredibly public ritual unfolds around her, braids stretching for yards from her neighbors’ skilled hands. “It’s such a communal effort that this get done,” Reynolds said. “There’s the established trust that this is something important, something needed.”

In Narcissister’s 2004 video “Every Woman,” a nude woman wearing a mannequin mask, Afro wig, and dark merkin gets down to the refrain of Whitney’s hit single. In a kind of reverse strip tease, she pulls items of clothing from her mouth and vagina then saucily tries them on. “This artist works with a lot of layering — the mask, the wig, the merkin,” Reynolds said. “Looking at the orifice — where this beauty is coming from — she’s fearless in her sexuality, like ‘This is me.’”

Katherine Simone Reynolds, "Manes 'n Tales" (2017) (photo by Brea McAnally)
Katherine Simone Reynolds, “Manes ‘n Tales” (2017) (photo by Brea McAnally)

Reynolds’s own work in the show — an archival matte print from 2017 titled “Manes ’n Tales” — envisions Rapunzel as a Black woman in a blonde Kanekalon wig long enough to climb. “I wanted to address the fairy tale feeling of needing a lot of hair,” the artist said. “When I was younger, I would stay away from blonde hair as much as possible — not wanting to attribute beauty to whiteness or white women in any way. Today, I wear blonde hair, blue hair, and all sorts of colors, but it still has this connotation of trauma — what White women have that Black women don’t.” With a tattoo peeking out above her left ankle, the subject — a friend of the artist — sports pink slippers and little else. Her mane becomes a sort of cape as she faces away, as though owning her look without longing for rescue.

Installation view of Dario Calmese's Amongst Friends. at Projects Plus Gallery (photo by Sarah Carmody, courtesy the gallery)
Installation view of Dario Calmese’s Amongst Friends. at Projects Plus Gallery (photo by Sarah Carmody, courtesy the gallery)

Lana Turner presents an alternative archetype of style and resilience in Dario Calmese’s black-and-white photo series at projects+gallery. Donning attire from her own expansive vintage wardrobe (selections from which are also on view), Turner confronts the lens with a singular ease and elegance — whether clasping a crystal clutch or balancing on one foot to assess her ensemble. Given that her tradition of big dressing began with getting ready for Sunday services, it makes sense that the clothes themselves often assume rather ecstatic proportions: a black satin and nylon runway hat billows over her profile like a storm cloud; an organza bow with rhinestone broach cinches her slender waist.

“For women, and Black women in particular, the garment serves both protective and projective qualities,” Calmese said, “a reclaiming of agency for a body violently attacked for both desire and commerce, and a sieve through which she projects her creative expression and what she deems important about herself.”

Dario Calmese, from the Amongst Friends. series (courtesy the artist and projects+gallery)
Dario Calmese, “no. 97” from the Amongst Friends. series (courtesy the artist and projects+gallery)

Part of Turner’s panache is indisputably linked to her larger-than-life persona, petite as she might be in real life. Now in her late 60s, she strikes an indomitable pose whether wearing a 1970s sequin bathing suit or an eye mask festooned with sky-high feathers. While these portraits may at first seem to reaffirm and almost fetishize material forms of glamor — designer logos, decadent duds, and museum-worthy accessories—the fact of Turner’s age and faith serves to complicate the matter, as do the subtle imperfections blessing every single piece. Her chipped nails fasten a button; her unpainted face beams, both wrinkled and serene; the playful brocade of a trouser leg visually mirrors the cracked lines of her heel upon a YSL mule, rendering the surface of her skin a tapestry of time.

For both Calmese and in Reynolds’s Mane ‘n Tail, glamor is less about show than ritual, less about glitz than grace. In Turner’s case, it is even less about opulence than the cumulative opus of a life devoted to beauty.

Dario Calmese, from the Amongst Friends. series (courtesy the artist and projects+gallery)
Dario Calmese, “no. 64” from the Amongst Friends. series (courtesy the artist and projects+gallery)

Mane ‘n Tail continues at the Luminary (2701 Cherokee Street, St. Louis, Missouri) through March 8. Dario Calmese’s Amongst Friends. continues at projects+gallery (4733 McPherson Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri) through March 31.

comments (0)