Completely fearless in her approach to her art, her work could be seen as confrontational social commentary, but it is more than that. Cox sees the work as a response to things which affect her. Not merely to confront or specifically to intentionally cause controversy.
One of her most controversial series of works to date entitled “Flipping the Script,” involved Cox's reinterpretations of religious art with contemporary black figures. One of the photographs in the series entitled, “Yo Mama's Last Supper” was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 2001. The large scale photograph was of a nude Cox as Jesus Christ, surrounded by black disciples. Judas, was depicted as a white man in the piece which was presented as a reinterpretation of Da Vinci's “Last Supper.” When New York Mayor Rude Guiliani called for her works,
“Not to be shown in a museum that regularly received public funding...”
Cox is reported to have shot back:
“I have the right to reinterpret the Last Supper as Leonardo Da Vinci created the Last Supper, with people who look like him. The hoopla and the fury are because I am a black woman. It's about me having nothing to hide.” (From www.reneecox.org)
|Yo Mamm's Last Supper. (c) Renee Cox 1996|
Reneee Cox, this fearless, inspirational, unintentionally confrontational artist, took time out of her busy schedule to discuss her life, art and success with me.
Adelaide Damoah (AD): I read that your family moved to Queens when you were three months old and then to Scarsdale when you were 14. Apparently, there were only 7 black families in the area that you moved to. Would you say those things directly impacted your work? I ask because your work is very politically motivated and I see lots of themes which challenge the stereotypes associated with being black.
Renee Cox (RC): In my community, it was sort of like a bad TV series where you were always the token. It was like one of those shows where you would have one black child with all of these white people. That was my reality,so I was used to that. Coming from Jamaican lineage, there was never any fear involved in anything.
For example, when my father came to the United States for the first time in the 40's, he landed in Miami with a British passport. Jamaicans had British passports back then. His reservation had been made in advance. When he got there, the only cab driver who would pick him up was a black man. My father said, “I am going to the Fontainebleau Hotel.”
The cab driver said, “Oh no, you can't go there!”
My father was totally ignorant of racism and Jim Crow. Anyway, after 15 minutes or so of arguing back and forth about whether or not he could go there, he walked into the hotel and up to the reception desk. The people parted like when Moses parted the Red Sea! Everyone was looking at him funny, my father was just thinking, “What is wrong with these people!”
He went to the reception desk and said, “My name is Lancelot Cox and we have a reservation.”
The guy looked at the book and just said, “Erm, yes...?”
So after an hour or so at the reservation desk, the man had to honour the reservation and he stayed there for three days! I don't say this as a criticism of African Americans, but in some ways, when I hear this story, I think it is a bit of a state of mind as well. You can put fear into people to the extent that they won't even challenge it. Then you have somebody that comes along who is completely ignorant to hangings and lynchings and burnings, who insists on just going to their room after a long journey because they are tired! He did not really find out about Jim Crow until a few days later, but he didn't care!
For me, growing up in that type of environment, I have never felt any trepidation. I have never had any boundaries and felt like I can't do this because I am a black woman or whatever. I think it is a lot healthier to be like that, because then you are not carrying all this residual baggage of this deep consciousness of the outer world.
|Chillin with Liberty. (c) Renee Cox. 1998|
AD: That is a testament to your attitude.
RC: Yes, well there was Jim Crow and black men hanging from trees, but at the same time, it is about what you accept. If you accept subordination, that is what will happen to you. Because I mean, if you make people fearful, they do anything and that was what was used. My father did not have that fear as he did not have that fear ingrained in him like kids who had grown up in the South.
That is what happened to poor Emmett Till, he did not have that fear, so they killed him. For my father, fine, they did not kill him. They just had to honour him and deal with it. That just goes to show that the whole thing was retarded to begin with, from the word go. That is the story.
It is story that is empowering, but at the same time, do we even have to say that it is empowering or do we have to say that its just normal? That is what normal should be.
AD: Is that in part what influences the way that you work now?
RC: Oh totally! It influences the way I work, it influences the way I live. It all goes hand in hand. It's like, people say to me, “Oh, you are the pioneer,” because people have always got to label you in one way or another. But for me its like, well yeah, OK, whatever, I was always doing what I wanted to do. It's sort of like a response.
Raje, from my Superhero series was a response to fighting in Toys R Us with other parents to get Power Rangers, and then noticing that there were no black super heroes. I remember thinking to myself that in my commercial days,-I shot Sunman, so somebody was trying to do a black superhero, what happened to that? It fell by the wayside. Then I was like, well wait a second, I am going to try and do something along those lines.
Contrary to what people may think about my work, there was a lot of research and preliminary drawings and paintings that went into it. The research lead me to Charles Moulton, who was the creator of Wonder Woman. In the 1960's, Charles Moulton actually had some covers done for Wonder Woman and one of them was a black woman who was supposed to be the sister of the white Wonder Woman and her name was Nubia. She appeared on a couple of covers. For me this was perfect because I could continue in the tradition of Wonder Woman, stopping people in their tracks, and get rid of the stereotypical notions and ideas of other people. That is how that came about. In short form, I would say to you, that a lot of the time, that is the way that I work. A lot of the time it is something that has come in from the exterior, that is like mental noise and I think to myself, wait, that has disturbed me, I need to change that around!
AD: Sounds kind of therapeutic.
RC: Yes, if your work can be therapeutic and can at least keep you on track so that you don't fall into the madness of the world, then that is a beautiful thing. I am not interested in being tied up in the whole matrix of things where you need to do this, or you need to suffer or you need to be the starving artist and all that foolishness. That is bullshit. That is bullshit for the people who have the power.
AD: That brings me onto my next question actually. This notion of the starving artist has been romanticised, therefore, the average person who perhaps does not know anything about what it means to be an artist, sees that. It does not sound like that has ever been your experience. Has it?
RC: No. I have no interest in suffering! Let me put it to you this way, the Buddha suffered for seven years. He did not reach any sort of enlightenment. The day that he said, I am not going to suffer and deny myself everything, that is the day that he reached enlightenment.
So why the hell am I going to suffer and go through all of this bullshit, just to fall into some stupid motif that other people have created? I have no interest! And all of those other people, they are fucking miserable anyway! I don't want to be miserable. I am not miserable, I want to be happy, and that's it!
|Hot en Tot. (c) Renee Cox 1994|
AD: You studied film at Syracuse university. What influenced you to go from that to still photography?
RC: Well photography and film kind of go hand in hand. At Syracuse, back in the day, we had to do A and B-rolling- where you manually cut the film and put it into bins...
Anyway, long story short, film making at that time was very tedious. As much as I loved it, I found myself doing photographs for different people in the community and doing portraiture and I loved doing that too. The turnaround time was a lot faster. I could shoot it in the morning, go in the dark room and be done with it by the end of the day. Whereas with film, I would be there selling my books and six months later, still trying to finish this film!
AD: From there, you went on to do fashion photography?
RC: Right. Well that was always a love. I have got a lot of fashion magazines that I have collected from the 1970's, so for me, that was always the inevitable way to go. When I was at university, I was thinking about photography, but I was not thinking about art.
AD: What was it about having a child in 1990 that then inspired you to go and do your MFA and focus on fine art photography.
RC: I had been doing fashion for almost 10 years at that point. It was fun, I was in my twenties, I got to travel, I got to be superficial! My conversations would be about shoes, you know Maud Frizon or Claude Montana and it was a really shallow existence.
One day, I just woke up. Actually, I was in London and I started hearing about Nelson Mandela and the ANC and all the atrocities that were going on in South Africa. Up until that time, I was sort of oblivious to it. When I started hearing that, I was horrified and became more interested in things that were happening that were relevant in the world and at the same time, realising that the people I was hanging out with in fashion were so not there. They were living in this stupid little world. I really did not want to be a part of it.
An example that I give that makes it succinct is that I was at dinner with a bunch of fashion people, and I said to them, “Wow, it's amazing, Nelson Mandela was released from prison today after 27 years.”
These people turned around to me and said, “Oh really, well Donald and Ivana are getting divorced!”
I was like, are you freaking kidding me? Donald Trump is a complete ass hole!
Many years ago, this was this rape of this white woman in Central Park. Donald Trump put an ad in the New York Times, asking for the death penalty for these kids. It was at a time when things in New York were a little touchy. There was Howard Beach and things happening against black people that were not correct at all. So to ask to have the death penalty was like saying, lets get a lynch mob to kill these kids. That was completely irresponsible. Anyway, the kids got exonerated because of DNA evidence later, but that is another story...
That was my “aha moment,” when I decided that I could not be around these complete morons any more. That was when I decided to go into art.
At that time, it was not enough to be a fashion photographer and to say, 'I have a great mailing list of really beautiful people who could come to the show.' I needed to go to grad school and get my MFA. At that juncture, I had just had a kid and the best place for me to go at that time was the School of Visual Arts. That was really pivotal because it made me more conscious... It took what I knew technically and made me more conscious of what I wanted to say with my photography in terms of message.
Following graduation, I went on to the Whitney Independent study program which is like a débutante ball and that kind of helped solidify a place for myself within the art world. That was the trajectory.
|Black Housewives. (c) Renee Cox|
AD: Would you say that going on that study program was the thing that launched you?
RC: Yes. Because the Whitney Independent study program was what Yale is today. It was that clearing house, it was where everyone went to see the “chosen ones!”
AD: After graduation and the study program, how long did it take to go forth into the world as a full time fine artist.
RC: It was right away. At that time I already was a full time fine artist. I was in the Bad Girls show at that time, that was very successful. My piece in the show was one of the very few that Roberta Smith liked, so it was really fast. After that, I was in the Black Males show, with a really cool piece and just kept going from there.
AD: Did you have any specific challenges?
RC: Well the initial entrée was like bliss. I did a piece, they liked it, people were calling me wanting to buy it. Coming out of the fashion world, that was great. It wasn't like it was brain damage for me to do the work!
Then as I progressed, the next big body of work I did was the Superhero's. That is when I found some resistance. That’s when people were saying, “Oh, she is narcissistic! She apparently likes herself too much,” which is not a good thing because if you are black, you shouldn't really like yourself, you should be giving them some victim shit. I am not about that victim shit. My thing is world domination, if you want to go down that path. I am not interested in being somebodies victim, so they did not really take well to that body of work. From there, it became more challenging.
The other thing is the way the art world works, and this is not specific to the art world- its the world in general. They want to box you, put you in a category. They want to be able to say, "Renee Cox is the one who does really large seven foot photos of herself naked with her children."
Once they liked that, they expected me to keep giving them my naked body, really large scale, until the day I died. It would have been perfect because there was another photographer at that time named John Copeland, who had just died and I could have just slid right into his spot. But I had no interest! That was boring as hell! I am not interested in becoming that person, if I need to be nude, then great, it is applicable, but if it is not, then I don't need to.
I think that is where the shift came, because they realised that I was not controllable. I am talking about the commercial aspects of the art world. There was the seven foot “Yo Mamma,” “Flipping the Script,” and the “Raje”, then “Yo Mamma's Last Supper” and then it was like what? But for me as an artist, it is about my growth. I am not interested in just producing the same product each and every time.
|Mother of Us All. (c) Renee Cox 2004|
AD: Being a black woman in a world dominated by upper middle class white men, did you feel personally that you had to push past any kind of barriers and if so, how did you do that? Especially considering the nature of your work, de-constructing racial and sexual stereotypes in a very in your face way. Your work can not be ignored.
RC: That is just the way I am. I don’t strategise how I am going to do things. It is about the way that I feel. I do the research behind my feeling and then I put it out there. I had never really thought about it like that in terms of white male middle class. That was what was harped on about in grad school with the whole patriarchal society. At that juncture, I just take the attitude of my father which was like, “Really? I need my room!”
I can't get into other peoples madness, otherwise, you are going to become mad yourself. If that is the way they operate, fine.. You think its in your face? I don't know, maybe it is, maybe it isn't. It depends on who is looking at it and their particular sensibility.
Why is it in your face?That is an interesting question, because then I think, perhaps they would like to see somebody more muted, something more quiet, something more “subtle.” But I'm not interested in subtleties, nothing in history has been subtle. You enslave people, and have them working for you for free and then turn around and call them idiots? Wait a second, if I had people working for me for free, don’t you think I would own everything by now?
AD: What do you think it takes for a black female to be validated in this establishment.
RC: That's an interesting thing- validating. Even just believing in validation is something that will drive you mad. Who are you looking for validation from? Are you looking for validation from those same crazy ass white people that you just told me about? Are you looking for validation from your peers? Then I have to say to you, why are you looking for validation in the first place?
I can tell you, I spent most of my life looking for that stupid validation. Then I woke up one day and thought, well who am I looking for validation from? I am asking crazy people for validation. Its like, pick up a newspaper, pick up a history book. Look at what has been happening for the past 3,000 years. People killing each other over religion, over race, over all kinds of stupidity, these are the people that I am asking for validation from. These are the people who in 2001 are going to give me my 15 minutes of fame and then pull it back and say, Renee Cox who? If I am going to believe in that validation and then they pull it back, what happens to me? I go jump off the George Washington Bridge? Because now I have no identity because they have taken it away from me? That is too much damn power to give to people! I think if any artist is out there, that is the first thing they need to realise. They should never give that power to anybody.
|River Queen. (c) Renee Cox 2004|
AD: You have achieved a shit load of stuff! What is your personal definition of success in the art world?
RC: Success for me at this juncture is to be happy and to be doing what I want to do. I will back that up. In March 2012, I spent six month in Mexico, I had a residency there for some rich collectors. From there, I decided I did not want to do photography. I made clay, terracotta, small figures. To give you a visual, West African ancestor figures. I made thirty of them while I was there.
It was a beautiful thing because I was able to have my resource material there and get inspired by it. Once you stick your hands in the clay and start making, it becomes something else, something different. Its one thing that you don’t have in photography. At the end of the day you can say, “I made three little people, look.”
In photography, its like a production, there is the thinking about it, the execution, the picture, then it is like, how am I going to present it. It is a whole different process. When you put your hands in the clay and your hands are just telling you what to do, there is no thought.,there is no agenda in your head of following a set pattern. It just comes out of this space of complete spaciousness. That is where all creativity comes out of, contrary to popular belief- it doesn't come out of some book. When that happens, its a beautiful thing. I want to blow them up to life size.
I would say that makes me a better artist as I am able to expand and explore. I am not doing the same thing over and over because of the market and because of capitalism. That is where I am at. That is the most important thing. Because this business, if you let it, it will drive you crazy, because the people in it are crazy. I mean just look at it, turn on the TV. On every channel there is someone killing somebody, undermining somebody... This is a form of entertainment. It is pure ugliness. I am not about that. I am not judgemental- but I look at it and I say, my God, people are suffering.
AD: By your definition of success, would you say that you are successful?
RC: It is about being happy with what you are doing, not about monetary success. So you have money, but you just run around chasing more money. You have money on the outside and you keep trying to accumulate more money and you cant even enjoy the things that you have got. You want to tell me that is success? I don’t think that’s successful. At least someone like Branson appears like he enjoys his money- so I say fine , he has money and he is having fun.
Even if you look at the Bible, it says money is the root of all evil. I mean it is good to be comfortable, but look at this way, if I was an artist chasing money, I would not be an artist. If I wanted to chase money, I would go into banking. And now the new generation are all about the money. That’s great, but I did not come up from that. When I was in school, if you talked about money, you were a sell out. I mean that is neither here or there. I am not poor, so I get to do what I want to do, but it has never been the driving force.
AD: What is your biggest success to date.
RC: Probably raising two really cool kids
AD: How old are they now?
RC: 22 and 19. Not making two ass holes for the world. Making two complete people. I would say that is probably one of the biggest successes one can have. So the next generation, there will at least two people out there with a bit of consciousness going on.
I think that is important for the world. I think the other one is when I do lectures, talking to young people, giving them the right to do what they want to do- to be who they want to be. That is very fulfilling. I have had many come and say to me that I was brutally honest, but they came back and said that it helped them a lot . I believe in the truth and there are not many people that are going to tell you the truth. They will bullshit you around and I am not interested in that.
AD: What would you say is your ultimate ambition for the work.
RC: Just that the work is out there and people see it and it gets the respect that it deserves. I am not going to be written off because there is a new bus that came in. I am still here! The way the art world works, its like a racket almost. Go to grad school, do a couple of shows, get a position out of university, get tenured... That is how the business operates, otherwise who in their right mind would major in art.
I still have things to say and as long as I still have things to say, then I am going to say them. Obviously I need people to see the work. I can't work in a vacuum. People want to label and call me a pioneer, and I say, great that is cool. I will be the pioneer, I don't give a damn. I will have fun with it. You have to be able to have fun. You have got to be able to laugh girl- otherwise it will age you before your time. That is what the Dalai Lama says as well. Only thing is, the Dalai Lama doesn't tell you how to get happy!
AD: What advice would you give to young artists wishing to follow in your footsteps?
RC: I would say, be the witness to your negative thinking. Don’t let that shit get to you. Know that the thoughts you may be having are coming out of your ego. And know that your ego, contrary to popular opinion, is not your friend. Once you understand that, you can address it and you don’t have to let it build up in you and become a real drama. You get good at it at a certain time and you can laugh about it. You know, when you get those thoughts like- “that artist is better than me, or that artist has had more shows than me or that artist...”You know, and then you start crying about it saying 'poor little me.' Once you notice that, then you can say- aha, that was my little ego kicking in there, that's what it was. Then you can ignore it because its only going to destroy you if you let it.
|Lost in Mongolia. (c) Renee Cox 2008|
Renee Cox Website: http://reneecox.org/
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