Hidden Meanings: Negress & Mammy / by Simone Brewster

"The  calling of art is to extract us from our daily reality, to bring us to a hidden truth that's difficult to access -
to a level that's not material but spiritual.
"
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI

Simone Brewster Negress and Mammy

The years are tallying up between when I first conceived of the idea for The Negress & Mammy seating element and table. Since it's first public appearance in 2010 and now, many of the same questions which arise surrounding this piece are still being asked.

Why do they have breasts?
Is it meant to black?
Why did you choose to express these ideas in furniture and not just sculpture?
Where did
this idea come from?

Courage

In 2010, British artist Chris Ofili was given a solo show at The Tate Britain. This exhibition, which would be Ofili's first at the Tate Britain, saw such a successful turn out that it's show dates were extended to accommodate for the unpredicted crowds. I was one of those to attend and be jolted by the work and voice of an individual whose position seemed to align with my own.   

Chris Ofili, Triple Beam Dreamer, 2001-02

Chris Ofili, Triple Beam Dreamer, 2001-02

There was not one singular thing that impressed me when viewing the range of artworks on display but many. 
The layered surfaces within the early canvases, which combined at least three levels of detail, bringing together laboured pointillism over a wash of colour, glitter and resin. These were often exampled on a large scale with canvases towering over the viewer or spanning the length of a wall. 

Detail from No Woman No Cry Small photographs of murdered youth Steven Laurence are collaged into this crying mothers tears. 

Detail from No Woman No Cry
Small photographs of murdered youth Steven Laurence are collaged into this crying mothers tears. 

Ofili, who represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2003 is one of few artists who have reached Turner Prize winning heights (1998) creating works that embrace and empower a decidedly black position, with humour, insight, playful exoticism and a boastful embracing of the sub cultures he must have been exposed to during his life in London. This subject matter was not just impactful, it was honest and recognisable.
Ofili was painting from a lens which I had also gazed through.

"When I left the Royal College, I decided I would only make paintings that I would want to look at myself, that felt close to my life."
C
hris Ofili

The aftermath of the exhibition was one of reflection. Why was I not producing more of the work I felt missing from the world? 
This was an impossible question, which lead me on a path of research and reflection. A path that would ultimately shape the beginnings of my personal practice and unleash my voice as an artist. 
It was time for me to screw my courage to the sticking place in the hope that I would not fail. 

Murmurs of The Negress

In the period of research which followed I came across many works, but two paintings in particular wouldn't stop returning to my mind. These were paintings created by artists of different gender, nationality and undertaken 20 years apart. However themes of Négritude and African Postmodernism unite the two. 
The first was The Negress, by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral and the second The Murmur by Cuban artist of mixed heritage, Wifredo Lam

The Negress (La Negra), 1923 Tarsila do Amaral

The Negress (La Negra), 1923 Tarsila do Amaral

The Murmur, 1943 Wifredo Lam

The Murmur, 1943 Wifredo Lam

Tarsila's The Negress, displays a subject who sits, a monumental pile of flesh gazing out from the canvas, naked. Both revealing and concealing herself. A sculptural presence of mass, volume and power and an early example of Tarsila's response to the eras uptake and devouring of African inspired European primitivism which was being explored by artists (Picasso, Fernand Léger ) at the time. 

Lam's The Murmur presented a hybrid other. The figure who stands amongst the palm leaves and forest foliage is hardly female, only through the breasts are we assured of the gender of this otherworldly being. In this painting we see Lam reappropriate primitivism, exploring it from the decidedly Caribbean landscape. 

The forms and presence of these two paintings were far from beautiful and in Lam's case somewhat disturbing, but also engaging in their unforgiving reclamation of identity.

  Finding A Home

Being a true Londoner I am happy to be able to frequent one of city's best attractions, the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was on one of these visits that I realised some things.
What became apparent was the lack of artifacts both historical and contemporary that spoke to the joint history and the intertwined relationship of the African nations and the Great British land I call home. 
However, those items which they do have were symbolically rich, and again acted as a reinforcement of my belief that the domestic objects which we choose to surround ourselves with, are as much proclamations of our ideals and identity as the clothes we wear, the books we read and the art we hang.   

Two artifacts which stood out in particular were table figurines of black women. At this time the female form was used as part a visual metaphor representing the Four Continents.

Object: Figure Place of origin: Meissen, Germany (made) Made: ca. 1745-1750 Artist/Maker: Eberlein, Johann Friedrich

Object: Figure
Place of origin: Meissen, Germany (made)
Made: ca. 1745-1750
Artist/Maker: Eberlein, Johann Friedrich

Object: Figure Place of origin: Derby, England (made) Made: ca. 1785-1790 Artist/Maker: Derby Porcelain factory (manufacturer)

Object: Figure
Place of origin: Derby, England (made)
Made: ca. 1785-1790
Artist/Maker: Derby Porcelain factory (manufacturer)

"Africa’ was conventionally depicted as a black woman with ‘an Elephant’s Head for her Crest; a Necklace of Coral; and Pendents of the same, at her Ears; a Scorpion in her right Hand, and a Cornucopia, with Ears of Corn, in her left; a fierce Lion by her, on one Side, and a Viper and Serpent on the other."

Victoria & Albert Museum

Decorative objects such as these functioned as servers and were made to be viewed during meals. Later evolutions were solely decorative, however their symoblic use remained the same. 
Functioning as visual reminders of their owners position and power, suggesting a relationship to slave ownership and in the case of sugar servers, a connection to plantations and the growing trade in sugar. 

Design  Art

On the occasions which my work is displayed in public, the same questions emerge.
Though framed in different ways the essence of the inquiry speaks to the positioning of the piece and the consequent sphere the work is to be viewed within. These questions are usually accompanied by a quizzical look and tilted head, "Is this sculpture or furniture? Why make furniture and not just a sculpture?" 
 

Negress chaise lounge by Simone Brewster

The decision was conscious. 
I decided to make an object with function, specifically because it was an object which would be expected to serve silently instead of "speaking out".
Tables, chairs, beds, stands, these objects live to support our lifestyle. They generate the atmosphere of our environments and serve us in our daily activities. They exist as part of the canvas of our homes, blending together to create the narrative of the self we wish to project to the outside worlds and to ourselves.
In the same way the porcelain table figurines spoke of their owners connections to plantations, western conquest and the slave trade, our contemporary objects speak of our self perceived and real positions in the world. We curate these objects, consciously or unconsciously to speak of our tastes, desires, aspirations and beliefs. 

The supporting elements of this seat and table are made up of deconstructed black female forms. This broken woman complied of her voluminous parts, comes together to uphold the surfaces which rest upon them, providing function.
Quietly in service. 

What's In A Name?

The original Mammy  

The original Mammy

 

In naming these two pieces, it was essential that they call out or in the very least indicate where some of the inspirations behind the final objects were founded. 
The Negress took its name from the aforementioned painting. This choice was quite linear, with the finished object calling upon multiple references and acting as a bridge from the present to the past and the future. But more obviously, the chaise lounge was clearly female, imposing, bold and black. 

Maybe more obscure was The Mammy. Hattie McDaniel ( above right) played Mammy to Scarlett O'Hara's (Vivian Leigh, left) in Gone With The Wind. McDaniel was the first ever African American to receive the Oscar, which was awarded at the 12th Academy Awards in 1939 for the role of Mammy. 
Her supporting role to Leigh's lead was near impossible to forget. 
The Mammy Table sits along side the Negress in a supporting role, that balances out the presence of the larger article.  

The subjects which were raised throughout the research and design process is rich enough to extend beyond these two artifacts. The Negress & Mammy are the start of a growing body of work which will look at the theme of the hidden stories and messages within the objects that occupy our homes.