While preparing for her seventh group show in 2010, Wanda Ewing was kind enough to make time for conversation with me. Exploring contemporary culture through personal narrative, Ewing recontextualizes images from popular culture, addressing issues of race, beauty standards, sexuality and identity. What I found captivating about Ewing's depictions of being black and female was her treatment of territories of duality. And not just by working with wallpaper and wood (implying the stage of domestic interiors). Ewing's prints have a humorous insolence at those culturally safe female personalities—the exhibitionist (pin-ups) and the demure (wallflowers).
An established artist in her hometown of Omaha, Ewing is the first person of color to be hired full time and tenured in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Ewing's work is part of A Greater Spectrum: African American Artists of Nebraska 1912-2010. Featuring 91 artworks by 22 artists, this historic exhibition is the first comprehensive survey documenting the arts of African American artists with ties to Nebraska. Ewing has exhibited her art nationally and internationally, but returned home to make a positive impact on a community she has high hopes for. We talked at length about being a Black artist in Omaha, feminism, body image, race relations. We end with a brief comment on the current censorship of the Smithsonian's NPG in Washington. What follows is an edited interview with Wanda Ewing.
Patricia: When I see your Wallflower Pin-ups, the wallpaper creates an instant intimacy of forbidden desire. Floral wallpaper implies domestic privacy while the female figures clearly depict sexual flirtation. In Western Art's systematized bias, Black women have been depicted as voracious sexual creatures whose rationale is to be questioned or dismissed. The Black female body has been fodder for desires born of anthropological scrutiny and an affirmative action of display that mostly, continues serving the gaze of exoticism and/or otherness. Selected areas of the body are isolated as idealized, exoticizing fragments rather than a whole and wholesome figure. But your pin-up girls... they move acrobatically without caring who gazes at them or why.
Wanda: I think it's human nature to be curious about individuals different from you. The issue lies in how it manifests. If you are told something is taboo, it will either make you more attracted or more repelled. That sums up a lot of history. When the black female was "discovered", it was first displayed as an oddity (Hottentots Venus), then quickly moved to something that needed to be de-sexualized and shunned (mammy). How could something other than white and European be considered beautiful?
When I created this series, it was my intention to take the negative aspects of how the black female form is portrayed and place it in a positive light. Although it’s the 21st century and attitudes surrounding the subject of beauty and acceptance have shifted, the black female form is still considered undesirable unless it has been altered to incorporate Western ideas of beauty.