The Radical Imaginaries of Renee Cox


[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention via Critical.Caribbean.Art.] Sugarcane Magazine features Jamaican-born artist Renee Cox and the “Black narratives” of her portraiture. Here are excerpts:

Renee Cox isn’t about the bullshit: she is sharp and unapologetic about the subjects she channels. Cox uses her body as a conduit: a small axe chopping at the brittle branches of false and exclusionary histories. For the last 30 years, the prolific photographer has posed for more than a thousand portraits and exhibited hundreds of images within series that have come to define late 20th century portraiture.

In all iterations, Cox’ work champions Black narratives; the known and unknowable chronicles of Black presence in America and the Caribbean. Her portraits have no limitations: Black people are gods, superheroes, Maroon freedom fighters and sacred Madonnas.

Even Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are evolved by her reimagining of their likenesses in Liberation of Aunt Jemima & Uncle B (1998) as superbly Black superhumans who are adorned in the unforgettable patina of Black liberation. This gesture, an unabashed declaration that Black bodies exist in the past and will exist in the future, is a powerful strategy, a mindful apparatus through which our collective imaginations can be recalibrated to dismantle and eradicate the fragile constructs of overwhelmingly flat and historically racist propaganda about Black lives.

“There is a permanence to photography,” Cox shared during a brief Zoom interview. “a longevity…. And sometimes I like to think of it as creating my own propaganda.  It’s an immediate vehicle.”

Humans are hungry for legacy. World histories have proven time and time again that to be Black is to have a precarious life expectancy; white supremacy is a longstanding pandemic that refuses to be acknowledged as such. History is marked by the slaughter of Black lives, innocents and rebels whose mundane lives or rally cries for civil rights resulted in execution.

What was Breonna Taylor’s crime? What was it about her resting body, weary from serving as an essential worker during a pandemic, that warranted her assassins to consider her, and her family, a threat?  She died like Chairman Fred Hampton: no knock, bullet riddled, while asleep in her bed. And like him, those who murdered her remain free. Black life is only variably recognized as human. Histories of photography provide an important lens into the fodder that feeds pathological fears about Black presence and hopeful possibilities about its usefulness in decolonizing our collective imaginaries.

Since the advent of modern photography in the early 19th century and well into the contemporary moment, non-white bodies have been the peculiar fetish of the white gaze. As anthropological inquiry or pseudo-scientific eugenic proofs, the photography and surveillance of Black bodies has served to found inimical categorizations and biases that posit Black lives as gross deviations from whiteness. [. . .]

Whether Cox is conjuring Raje, the long lost sister of Wonder Woman in Chillen With Liberty (1998) and Lost in Space (1998), embodying Queen Nanny, an 18th century revolutionary Jamaican Maroon leader in Warrior (2004) and Mother of Us All (2004), or revisioning the signing of the declaration of independence with an all-Black delegation in The Signing (2017), she consistently dismantles and challenges longstanding presumptions about how Black bodies, and Black women, should be positioned in history.

The burden of respectability that has been placed on people of color and femme-identified bodies is cast off. Her work situates and celebrates real and imagined women and elevates them with affirming and empowering portrayals.

“It’s about creating and controlling our imagery, and then mak[ing] it clear.” Cox continued, “I’m too old to be running around protesting with signs, but I definitely want to have the conversation, the discourse, in order to try to make a change… the imagery, it plays a big role.” [. . .]

For full article, see

[Photo above: Raje for President by Renee Cox.]


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