Cultural historian speaks on black women artists

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Cultural historian Uri McMillan explored the importance of black female artists by including Jamaican supermodel, singer and actress Grace Jones in a talk.

McMillan spoke Tuesday as part of the Performing Blackness Series, a set of lectures launched by the UT Warfield Center for new artists to present their work. 

McMillan read from one of his papers, in which he cited afro-punk artist Grace Jones to demonstrate the power of black female performance art. 

McMillan said Jones took art and aesthetics to a different level. From her photo shoots with Andy Warhol to her distinct androgynous appearance, McMillan said Jones shattered traditional race and gender stereotypes throughout the 1970s and 1980s during the peak of her modeling and music careers.

Grace Sparapani, art history graduate student, said she thinks Jones paved the way for many present-day female artists, such as Beyoncé and Rihanna.

“She’s always just been someone who to me was a performer,” Sparapani said. “Thinking about her as a black woman at the time she was doing that is so incredible and so transgressive.”

Candice Lyons, women’s and gender studies graduate student, said this is the first time she has ever been to a lecture centered around Grace Jones. 

“This project has really interesting implications for how we view black women and especially black women who perform alterity,” Lyons said. 

Interestingly, Jones was often seen as the “white man’s puppet” because of her relationships with white men and collaborations with white gay photographers, McMillan said.

“With black women singers, there’s a very particular characterization, but we need to reframe the way we look at objectification,” McMillian said. “[Jones touches on] what it means to take pleasure in your own objectification.”

McMillan said Beyoncé, unlike Jones, tends to dominate conversations on gender and African-American Studies with his undergraduate students at UCLA. 

“It doesn’t mean you have to not talk about Beyoncé, but what if we actually put Beyoncé in conversations with someone like Grace Jones,” McMillan said. “It’s always too easy to focus on one person and we don’t focus on the genealogy of other people.”

McMillan said Jones should be perceived as an artist rather than strictly a performer. 

“[It’s about] having a vision that is actually your own,” McMillan said.