Shame versus Joy

This is what I had to say about the idea of shame in the context of viewing Womanscape: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in African Art: people go to great lengths to avoid feeling shame. Shame is a tool used to control and manipulate others’ behaviors, especially around the subject of sex. Shame is one way to control an individual within a family or community, so they do not change and threaten the survival of the group by deviant behavior, or simply by behavior that deviates from what the group wants the individual to do.

In the southern bible belt culture I was raised in, sex outside of marriage was forbidden and shameful, and was the fault of women for provoking sexual urges (even if not even trying, themselves, to be provocative). Therefore women were shamed and punished for their sexuality, physicality, sensuality, rather than enjoyed, and certainly not celebrated. So to look at images of a naked woman, a fertile woman, a pregnant woman, a mother, in context of anything less than chaste or modest display, might create feelings of desire toward someone not virginal and not one’s own wife – therefore creating a cause for shame. It is hard to experience that enjoyment or desire publicly when it becomes transferred to taboo or voyeurism, which is shameful or secretive.

So to put on display, particularly on a large video screen, the video piece by Orisagbemi Arigbabuwo titled “Pygmalion” a beautiful, fit black woman’s body being body-painted by an artist with a brush, and posing and laughing, and clearly enjoying the sensual attention, is quite a challenge to the idea that one is to feel shameful about looking at the body or being a body. What I was most interested in, is that the woman in the video has a mother’s belly, like mine, one with unmistakable stretchmarks from bearing a child. What is shown is a provocative and beautiful, joyous and celebratory image of a fertile woman and a mother.

As someone who experienced being shamed and punished for my sexuality, and even gender, when growing up, especially during my teen years in a sexually repressive and abusive household, I am very sensitive to when someone is trying to shame me for my sexuality or body now. And still, I am a small person, and unable to defend myself physically from someone much larger than me, and I know what that experience is like. So my strength, attitude, self-acceptance and defiance go toward protecting myself socially, but that doesn’t do much good in a dark alley or around aggressive bullies. But I did, very much, enjoy watching this video, which is thick with the joy of womanhood.

The show at the Visual Arts Center at The University of Texas is only up for another week, go see it. Curated by Dr. Moyo Okediji.