A Jamaica-born and New York-based photographer, artist, lecturer, and political activist, Renee Cox is celebrated for works that capture the identities and beauty within her subjects. Dedicating her career to deconstructing stereotypes, she has provoked conversations at the intersections of cultural work, activism, gender, and African studies.
The artist's monumental, 12-foot-long photograph The Signing is currently on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. An interpretation of Howard Chandler Christy’s historical painting, Scene at The Signing of the Constitution of the United States, it offers a a contemporary look at one of America’s most historic events by portraying modern-day women and men of color in the place of the Founding Fathers.
We had a chat with Renee Cox to find out more about this stunning work. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, she talks about the narrative she was looking to convey, the working process behind the work, the representation of African Americans in art, the role of art in our turbulent times, and much more.
Widewalls: Your major work "The Signing" is currently on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, exhibited for the first time in a museum. How did this come to be?
Renee Cox: I’ve known Kathleen Goncharov, the Senior Curator at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, for over 20 years and I have kept in contact. When I created The Signing, I sent her the image. Then when the elections came around, Kathy reached out because she thought it would be a good time to show this provocative work.
Widewalls: This photograph interprets Howard Chandler Christy’s historical painting, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. Why did you choose to do a twist on this particular work?
RC: The major factor for creating this image was that Donald Trump was the president of the United States, and as far as I was concerned it looked like the beginning of fascism. I felt compelled to make a statement, reminder, that when the Constitution was written it did not include blacks as human beings - they were considered property.
Since the beginning of my practice, I’ve always played with revisionist notions in regards to art historical paintings. I call it "flipping the script." By that, I mean replacing those stoic images with people of color, hence creating my own propaganda, my own world.
Widewalls: In your contemporary and rather glamorous take, protagonists are modern-day women and men of color dressed in a range of different garments. What is the message behind this revisionist look at one of America’s most historic events?
RC: The number one message is that black and brown people need to take charge and rewrite the constitution thus taking control of their lives in America. Also, the other message is to have folks start thinking about creating a black independent political party where we can begin to lobby to make changes in our communities. STOP KILLING OUR BLACK YOUTH.
Widewalls: This elaborate piece includes over 30 subjects in as much clothing combinations. Could you tell us something about the working process behind it?
RC: Once a fashion photographer always a fashion photographer at heart. But seriously, the clothes represent the timeline from the beginnings of this country through the Afrocentric periods till today, the whole gamut.
Widewalls: You have dedicated your career to deconstructing stereotypes regarding representation of African Americans. What are some of the conversations you are trying to encourage?
RC: I have been steadfast during my career to break down the imposed stereotypes that have been placed on black people in a racist America. It has been my goal to always empower the subjects in my photographs as there are a plethora of demeaning images in the media, etc.
It’s important for blacks to see images of themselves that are uplifting empowering and joyful, consider it a form of brainwashing, reprogramming and with that in mind take the power to change the rules thus disbanding systemic racism. In a perfect world that could be a reality.
Widewalls: The recent events in the United States are spotlighting the centuries-old racism that stands at the core of the country’s institutions. How do you think art can contribute to today’s social and political battles?
RC: The role of art for me is to begin the discourse, the conversation, the enlightenment, to have an impact on the culture. Art can be a protest, it can be rebellious. It also can be a respite, as well as a place for introspective. The Signing is a protest, a visually stunning interlude from the madness.
Widewalls: What is next for you?
RC: What’s next... I’ve always hated that question as I feel when it’s asked it doesn’t come from the present moment. Is this moment not enough, The Signing?
But I also do understand living in this society where the allure of the hustle and the bustle is revered. So I guess what’s next for me is enjoying the very next breath that I take, being present.
Featured image: Renee Cox - The Signing (detail), 2017. Courtesy the artist and Boca Raton Museum of Art.