Brooklyn-based artist Nina Buxenbaum began her work as an exploration of images of African American women in our society. As an African-American woman of mixed heritage, she approached her work as an opportunity to position women of color into the Western Art Canon. Nina focuses on creating honest and personal depictions of women, particularly women of color, as a means to provide an alternative to the stereotypes prevalent in our culture. She uses the topsy-turvy doll as a metaphor of Black women and the way they learn to define their identity. The doll, whose name may be derived from the character of Topsy in the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), is a double-ended doll typically featuring two opposing characters. They are traditionally American cloth folk dolls, which fuse a white girl child doll with a Black girl child doll at the hips. Through the doll, Nina explores her personal expression of self, as a biracial-woman and plays with the metamorphosis of identity. Nina's work also draws from the ability of this subject to address femininity as it relates to cultural constructs including class, race, and the mutable and complex nature of identity. These dueling images address intersections of identity beyond race. Much of Nina's work is autobiographical. It explores the personal versus the public persona, the internal-self versus the external-self, and the disparities between the two. Nina's work investigates the complex stories of who we are individually and who we are as Americans with a rich and expansive cultural heritage.
Q&A: Nina Buxenbaum
How do you think women of color traditionally have been depicted in Western art? How do you create an "honest and personal depiction" of women of color?
Women of color have been depicted as slaves or as domestics like in Manet's Olympia. You have the domestic in the background. As a young college student I was searching for artists that painted Black women – artists that painted brown skin and I couldn't find many good examples. When I did find them, they were women in harams or women in domestic service. So, there was a lot of conflict for me because I love Western painting and the tradition of realistic representational painting with the lush colors and surfaces, but I really wanted to see people depicted that looked like me, my friends, my family, and people that I related to.
The work that I was making in undergrad about African Americans was often met by my peers with questions like "Why do you paint Black people?" My response would be, "Why do you paint white people? You paint them because that's your culture, that's who you are; those are the people you relate to most." But I was always challenged because they'd ask, "Who is your audience? Black people don't buy art. So, why make art about Black people when white people are not going to be able to relate to images of Black people." I thought that was an incredibly confounding statement. We are, as African Americans, meant to look at images of white people and be able to identify with them universally but the reverse was not true? A white person could not look at a Black female figure or a Black male figure and identify with them in any way?
What that revealed to me was that there existed an absolute division in the way race is viewed in our culture. Race has been and continues to be divisive in our history and our present. White Americans, generally speaking, can live in parts of the United States and never meet a person of color, or somebody outside of their cultural experience, or someone who speaks a different language, and therefore would never have to view the world from a different perspective than their own. Growing up in Brooklyn that idea was impossible to me. This lack of exposure to racial and cultural difference just didn't make any sense. My reality was just totally different growing up in New York, and specifically Crown Heights, which has a mixture of Jamaican, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Jewish Americans. The white people in my neighborhood were mostly Jewish so, even they were ethnic.
I was really interested in this idea, because Western art is how we learn history and, because all of the faces are white, we learn to view history through this white lens. However, for people of color to have the opportunity to see ourselves reflected in history, it's really powerful. It places us within that context of civilization and the history of civilization. Our role, our contribution has been completely deleted from the Western tradition because we're not depicted in the art. So when I talk about creating honest and personal depictions of women of color, I choose women who I relate to personally, that are family members, other artists, or friends of mine. Women I feel closely connected to. I try to create images where the female subject isn't sexualized and isn't made just an object in the way women's bodies have been made objects in Western art.
Instead of trying to go for overtly political statements, I really try to go for very personal statements. Because, I believe that what's most personal to each of us is what's most universal. We all have the same wants and desires. We want to be loved. We want to be understood. We want to be happy. Those are universal things. How people go about getting those things is different. But fundamentally we are all really connected and the same. It's our categories that really divide us.
Some of your paintings seem to depict a physical altercation and/or power struggle between the women. Can you elaborate on the significance of this?
Originally my mother is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She's Creole. She's a light-skinned Black woman and grew up under Jim Crow in the South. She left as a young woman and was part of that migration of Black folks out of the South because of Jim Crow, the endemic violence and threat of violence in daily life. My father is Jewish-American and he and my mom met because they both were doing work around the Civil Rights movement. They actually met on a bus to Washington, DC to participate in one of the marches. My Mom told me that the fear, the violence, the terrorism, that African Americans lived under in the South during the Jim Crow period, was the reason why she left. It was that constant stress and tension. You never felt safe. You never felt like you could speak your mind because the threat of violence was always there.
Being multi-racial and growing up in Brooklyn, people always assumed that I was Hispanic because of my skin color and hair texture. They would ask "well where are you from" and I'd say "I'm from Brooklyn." They'd be insistent "No what island? You're Dominican, you're Puerto Rican?" It just throws people. My last name, Buxenbaum, is German-Jewish, but the subjects of my paintings are Black women, and then I look the way that I look. It causes confusion for people. I don't look like my paintings. I paint darker skinned Black women and I've been painting lots of women of mixed race. People have always needed to know whether I was white, Hispanic, Jewish, whatever. I would always get told "You don't talk Black. You don't dress Black. You don't look or act Black." They obviously don't know what Black looks like because it comes in all shades and colors. My response would be, "Well then clearly you have no understanding. Not everybody has to be a stereotype in order to fit into your preconceived notion of Blackness."
So, for me the double-sided women are the interior self – the person that you know that you are internally, and then the self that the outside world sees. Sometimes they're in conflict with each other, and I think that this is perhaps a uniquely American experience, especially in New York and Brooklyn. We're very multi-cultural. We know how to move in different cultures and speak the lingo – the Brooklyn-ese. You know when to have the "accent" and when to move into the more professional "proper" American English when needed. There is a fluidity of how we move through society and we have to code switch constantly. I think sometimes that can be in conflict with yourself. You can feel very frustrated, like you're not being honest about who you are on the inside.
The conflict in my work can also express that idea of self-hate. The "I wish my hair was curlier, straighter, kinkier, whatever. I wish my skin was darker, or lighter. I wish I had green eyes or blue eyes or brown eyes." I think that we, as Black women, because we're so judged by our appearance, can have real self-loathing when it comes to how we are depicted in media. How you are responded to, or received, in society and how you find your true self in all of that complexity, can be confusing and frustrating.
Please describe how you use color in your work?
My works are a little saturated in color. I want to do more realistic color but I tend to go more saturated because I just love rich color. I try to use color in a way that's sort of natural but also hyper-real too because obviously these figures don't really exist. I think I'm also sort of cinematic in the way that I think about painting. I have a friend who is a film maker, and film and theatre really influence me visually. I think color is used in such a rich way in film and theater that I think of it as a cinematic element. But sometimes I need to tone it down. I think part of the reason I really love painting women of color, or anyone with a browner skin tone, is the layers of color that come through – the orange and red undertones and then the cool highlights. It's just a really beautiful pallet to work with.
When I teach, I always try to have models that are people of color or mixed race. It kind of throws my students off because they're used to using these "flesh" colored paints and then to use these whole other colors and values for brown skin tones is an eye opener. I want to see how people treat brown flesh in paint. Velasquez is good to look at for that. He has a couple paintings where you get to see the ways he creates the turning of the form and highlight, but not a lot of traditional Western artists have done that.
Do you have any personal connections to topsy-turvy dolls?
I mentioned that my dad was of German and Jewish-American ancestry. His family lived in upstate New York where I had a great aunt. She lived very close to Marathon, New York where Harriet Tubman had a home. We would visit my Aunt Verda's house, and at the top of the stairs it had a secret passageway that would have been hidden by a bureau. This passage would wrap around the staircase and then open up into this little storage area in the attic. My sister and I would love to play in there and that's where we found one of these topsy-turvy dolls. It was a white doll on one side with yellow yarn hair and a full-length dress, and you flipped it over and it had a Black doll on the other side. That was my first memory of one of these dolls.
My family speculated that her house might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad because of its proximity to Harriet Tubman's house and that passageway. But we don't really know. I had memories of that doll and when I was in college I was doing a lot of work about Black collectable images like Mammy cookie jars and Uncle Mose Salt Shakers. There was a lot of really awful imagery around Blackness. When I went to the Skowhegan residency in Maine after Graduate school I was really thinking about how I could make this imagery more personal. How do I reclaim this racist imagery and make these awful stereotypes of Blackness more personal? So, I thought again about the topsy-turvy toll and the idea of this undeniable connectedness of Black American history and white American history, and how integral our role has been in creating this country and what we call "American Culture".
I think talking about it in these ways and connecting to our humanness, it helps to separate the idea of just skin color as the barrier to connecting people. I like the idea that these figures are stuck together. I think about what you would do if you lifted up your dress and discovered this totally other person. Like a white person suddenly discovering that really they're Black. How would they freak out about that? What conflict would happen? How would you fight that? When would you come to accept it? Would you be able to accept it? It's that kind of thing. Here's somebody you can never get away from. I must accept who I am, and if I don't learn to accept myself, I'm not going to able to survive.
What artists have most influenced you?
Artists who have most influenced me include Rembrandt, Sargent, and Velasquez. Also, I think Jenny Saville is an amazing painter. I find her paintings horrible and beautiful all at the same time. She does these humongous paintings of large nude men and women. They look bruised, battered and fleshy, but when you see the actual paint the colors are beautiful and it's thick and luscious. You don't want to look at it because it's this bruised face but then you do look because the paint is just so beautiful. I want my paintings to be beautiful like that, even if what I'm painting is disturbing or disgusting.
In terms of political artists whose work I'm inspired by Goya and the way he gets real emotion expressed through the figure and face but his mark making is very gestural. Kerry James Marshall's work I love because he really simplifies Blackness with his dark ground and then the pale cool highlights. It's very simple. They're very quiet, but just beautiful and elegant. I like Bettye Saar and Alison Saar for their political content. I found Alison Saar's work really interesting because she's also biracial and Black identified, and she deals with the Black female figure in this really wonderful way.
I also like Adrian Piper. I really love her work. She's not a painter but it's more her political message and the way she plays with people's minds. She's also a Black woman who could pass for white. And often people mistake her for white. So it becomes a political statement when she lets people know she's Black and she has overheard them saying something racist to someone or to her directly. I find her work is just really brilliant.
How does working in Brooklyn inform your work?
Being in Brooklyn, especially around other artists working in Brooklyn, is amazing! It's a privilege to be able to have these kinds of conversations, because I think the artist community in Brooklyn is particularly in touch with the social issues that are happening, particularly around gentrification, affordability of housing, and racial justice. I think being engaged in that conversation and the role we play as artists, in engaging the public in that conversation, is really inspiring. This conversation is really important because you can make your work in your studio but ultimately you want your work to be out there, you want your work to be seen, and you want people to able to connect with it in some way. In order to do that, you have to be connected to what is present in people's lives. I really believe that art is beyond galleries and museums. I want my art to speak to everybody. What is your work saying? How are people going to read it? I think those kinds of conversations happen in a really profound way because of the community of artists that exists in Brooklyn.
*The artist chose to capitalize Black in place of African-American because it identifies a group of people as opposed to a color. Interviewed by Karissa Lake