Body politics

In the 1970s, an overtly political engagement with the nude began, reflecting the rise of feminism and the questioning of sexual and ethnic stereotypes. Earlier traditions of male artists depicting female nudes were challenged by female artists such as Alice Neel and Sylvia Sleigh, who subverted these power relations in their own depictions of female and male bodies. Rather than merely depicting forms, Neel actively addressed the subjectivity of the model in her revealing nude portraits, while Sleigh’s nudes challenged the paradigm of the male gaze by painting male bodies in the very erotic poses that were more often assigned to female nudes within the ‘odalisque’ tradition. Neither Neel nor Sleigh’s sitters are anonymous, as both artists established a personal relationship with their models while painting. They held the view that the encounter between model and artist need not be associated with a one-sided, dominating gaze. 

Sylvia Sleigh was one of the main protagonists of the feminist art scene in New York in the 1970s. She created a series of male nudes with direct references to the poses of the ‘classical’ female nudes by Ingres, Velázquez and Modigliani. By replacing women with men, she sought to challenge the representation of gender and sexuality and undermine power relations associated with traditional depictions of nudity.
The artist explored the dynamics of female desire and portrayed Paul Rosano as a male ‘odalisque’. The bulges and bright pink of the quilt on which he lies emphasize the erotic nature of his pose, which completely exposes his genitals. Intense realism and the emphatically individual character of her models were part of Sleigh’s strategy of breaking with existing conventions. She painted Rosano with great attention to detail, emphasizing his irregularly distributed body hair and the different shades of his unevenly tanned skin.

The American multimedia artist Hannah Wilke broke with social conventions by exposing her body in order to address the objectification of women. Wilke had a difficult relationship with the feminist movement in the 1970s, as she used her naked body confrontationally in her works and represented an uncompromisingly glamorous self-portrayal that many regarded as narcissism. Her self-portraits were more akin to “Playboy” centerfolds than typical feminist nudes. “Marxism and Art” was created as part of a project by the Center for Feminist Art Historical Studies in response to these critical voices. Wilke argues that a feminism that prescribes how a woman should look or behave is just as harmful as the objectifying values that feminism seeks to eliminate.

People of Color, Black artists and the artworks that show them are still a minority in major museums worldwide. They have always existed – artists, curators and collectors – but they were not recognized, their art was discriminated against as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘unaesthetic’. For many centuries, few positive images were shown, let alone the works recognized by art historians in such a way that they made it into exhibitions or contemporary discourse. Selective, racist discrimination excluded Black art from the mainstream and offered it no stage.

Their works dealt with their own history and courageously addressed social and historical issues of racism and discrimination. Art brought to light what often remained hidden. At a time when it was still frowned upon for people of color to make direct eye contact with white people and institutional racism was the order of the day, artists painted Black nudes that looked the viewer directly in the eye.

Their courage gave rise to new positions that continue to rise above social norms today, breaking with them and creating new approaches. They sharpen our view and our perception of how much work still lies ahead of us in order to develop an open, diverse world view.

This black and white self-portrait is one of a group of photographs in the Tate’s possession that are part of the ongoing series “Somnyama Ngonyama” (Hail Dark Lioness). In it, Zanele Muholi portrays themself in a variety of roles with a range of props and jewelry against different backgrounds.
As a photographer and, in their own words, an “activist of the visual”, Muholi focuses on the lives of the Black LGBTQI+ community in South Africa. This is realized in photo series in the form of intimate, mostly anonymous close-ups of women’s bodies and portraits of Black lesbians and trans women, accompanied by first-hand testimonies documenting the individual experiences of the participants. In “Somnyama Ngonyama”, Muholi continues to address socio-political issues through portraits, but this work is more autobiographical and diary-like than previous projects.

“Leg Chair (Cigarettes)” from 2014 is one of ten acrylic chairs that Anthea Hamilton began in 2009 based on her own body. This version of the chair consists of a metal frame and a seat flanked by two legs made of black acrylic, modeled on those of the artist. The legs are at an angle and only touch the floor with their ‘toes’, as if someone were sitting on the chair and looking directly at the viewer. The supports underneath are modeled on two oversized cigarettes.