“I think Barbies are kind of what [White] people look like and Bratz are like what Black people look like. So it’s like, we can relate more to Bratz dolls. They have curves and big lips,” says Tashell, a former participant in the outreach program Women on the Rise! at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami and an interviewee in Jillian Hernandez’s Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment.
The book stemmed from Women on the Rise!, which Hernandez initiated in 2004, when she was an education assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami. It offered girls entering the juvenile justice system a space for creative expression. Through her work with the girls, and her vast visual and art historical knowledge, the author theorizes the intersecting formations of gender, class, and race in relation to the self-presentation of Black and Latina women and girls.
Now an associate professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Florida, Hernandez’s exploration spans gender, class, pop culture, and queerness under the umbrella of “aesthetic excess” — and asserts that even naming this aesthetic is a conscious pushback against an aesthetic minimalism that is largely associated with whiteness in United States culture; naming reveals the potential for and power of “contesting and reimagining formations of race, gender, class and sexuality for Black and Latina women and girls as they make art with and about their bodies,” she argues.
Aesthetics of Excess’s core argument, Hernandez says via email, is that working-class Black and Latina style “generates and is extracted for cultural value in the art world, fashion, and popular culture, and that this value is denied to them, materially and symbolically, through the racialized-gendered trope of aesthetic excess.” At the same time, she posits, “despite this exploitative dynamic, aesthetics of excess nevertheless continue to create avenues for Black and Latina aesthetic, embodied, and sexual autonomy and imaginative capacity.”
The book’s strength lies in Hernandez’s sharp arguments and the theoretical threads she interweaves. Rather than considering Black and Latina body aesthetics against the implicit whiteness of categories deemed “standard” or “tasteful” in mainstream US culture, the book names them, claims them, and presents them in their own light.
“Latinas have been portrayed [by mainstream media] as ‘disorderly bodies’ that are emotionally, corporeally, and sexually excessive.” Yet, as she notes, Black and Latina women’s and girls’ embodied aesthetics racialize them either through denigration or celebration-as-appropriation, yet are later co-opted (usually without credit) into mainstream trends.
The book alternates between theoretical and art historical readings of Black and Latina artists, like Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, and Miami-based Cuban American Crystal Pearl Molinary, whose “Habana Riviera” recreates photos of her mother, a model in 1960s Cuba, as well as pop culture icons like Nicki Minaj, and artist Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of young working-class Black men against floral backgrounds. Then there is Chicana singer Selena shining with sequin- and rhinestone-covered bras in this “aesthetics of excess,” to be hyper-visible but, as Hernandez argues, “not necessarily in an effort to gain legibility or legitimacy. Embodying such styles often stems from one’s racial, ethnic, and gendered culture, and the desire to utilize the body creatively, admire one’s self-image, and potentially attract the gazes of others.”
The references to aesthetic culture in this book feels endless, and many are all framed against the backdrop of a visually saturated Miami. One chapter dives into the origin of the viral “Chongalicious” video by the Chonga Girls circa 2007. Hernandez argues that the video, a parody by women who did not identify as chongas, privileges White Latinx identification and defuses any threat posed to White or assimilated Latinx identity in the US.
She similarly calls out the art world’s racial politics, particularly in “consuming images of chonga-esque girls from a safe, observable distance,” which makes their working-class politics appear entertaining and nonthreatening.
Hernandez’s own voice most comes through when she discusses her background as the daughter of first-generation, working-class Cuban and Puerto Rican migrants raised in Latinx enclaves of West New York, New Jersey, and Miami. Much like the girls she works with through WOTR, the story begins and ends with the personal-as-political, the most potent perspective of all.
Despite the at-times slow read that academic texts require, this book is essential in reclaiming aesthetics of excess from exploitation.
Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment by Jillian Hernandez (2020) is published by Duke University Press and is available online and in bookstores.