In-Transit/En tránsito in Santiago, Chile: Wellesley College Faculty Exhibition & Talk

Galería Macchina, Universidad Católica, Santiago, Chile. August 2014.

I’m excited to be traveling to Santiago, Chile this week to brag about my brilliant colleagues in the Department of Art, Music, and Cinema & Media Studies at Wellesley College for the opening of In-Transit/En Tránsito, organized by Chilean artist and Associate Professor of Art, Daniela Rivera. The exhibition takes place at the Galería Macchina at the School of Art at Universidad Católica from August 20 through September 23.

Participating artists include: Carlos Dorrien, Candice Ivy, Jenny Olivia Johnson, David Kelly, Nicholas Knouf, Phyllis McGibbon, Salem Mekuria, Qing Ming Meng, Andrew Mowbry, Daniela Rivera, Betsy Seder, and David Teng Olsen.

I’m also thrilled to be taking funk on the road! I’ll be speaking about my own research, “The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis & Renée Stout,” at Galería Macchina at the School of Art at Universidad Católica on Tuesday, August 20 at 6p.m. Musicologist Daniel Party will serve as moderator.

The FUNK is coming…

FUNK leads folks to my website more than any other search term–not Art History, not family, not anything else! The truth of the matter is that I haven’t even written much here on it because I haven’t wanted to give away too many of my pearls (tiny pearls, but pearls) of wisdom too soon. Thanks to Dr. Tony Bolden, editor of The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture, my essay “The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis and Renée Stout” will be published this fall in the American Studies Journal in a special funk issue, edited by Bolden. A few of the contributors, including me, will be presenting at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Washington, DC on Saturday, November 23 on the panel, “Groove Thang: Funk, Feminism, and Afro Beat.” I’m bringing fine art to the table, but music will be at the center of our discussions. I. Cannot. Wait.

BD_They_Say_Im_Different_1974_Cover

Here is a description of our panel:

This panel, sponsored by AMSJ, seeks to address a lacuna in American music criticism. Funk music was popular between the late 1960s and early 1980s, and has been crucial to the aesthetics of hip hop and afrobeat. But despite influencing two global forms, funk has been largely ignored by scholars of American culture. The critical invisibility of funk is especially curious because the funk music epitomizes collective dissent…In his paper “Funky Drummer: Fela Kuti, James Brown, and the Invention of Afrobeat,” musicologist Alex Stewart examines the manner in which Nigerian band leader Kuti reconfigured Brown’s rhythmic patterns, modal jazz, and black nationalist politics to fashion a postcolonial aesthetic that became known as afrobeat. Key to Stewart’s concern is how Kuti synthesized elements of funk and soul to construct, albeit ironically, a form that express uniquely Pan-African ethos. Art historian Nikki Greene presents a layered discussion in which she reads feminist visual artist Renée Stout’s rewriting of feminist funk diva Betty Davis’s music. Greene argues that Davis and Stout exhibit black feminist ambitions, deliberately or not, and that both artists demonstrate in music and art, respectively, what Greene calls a “feminist funk power,” which she defines as an expressive capacity to compel viewers to rethink and reinvent conceptualizations of black female agency. Finally, Tony Bolden completes the panel by framing funk music as a locus of black vernacular epistemology. Combining research and/or methodologies from literary criticism, dance, and musicology, Bolden examines the role of the body in relation to what he calls the funk principle—the interplay between motion and emotion. He argues that this dynamism constitutes a psychosomatic method of formulating and expressing musical ideas, and demonstrates that this unique epistemological modality is essential to the music-making process in funk.

For more on Renée Stout, see her website: reneestout.com. If you want to get your hands on an LP (yes, an actual record), go to Light in the Attic Records. In 2007, the label reissued Davis’ previous three albums and a previously unreleased album (CD’s and mp3s are also available). Check out this video with the 1975 song, F.U.N.K. It aptly pays homage to the best funk rockers of all time.

“Don’t Call Her No Tramp”: The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis

Betty Davis, They Say I'm Different (1974)

Today at 4 p.m. at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College, I am giving a salon talk on Betty Davis. I’m thrilled to finally get my ideas out to friends and colleagues. It will be fun listening to her music and digesting the scholarly stuff along the way.

The gist of my argument is this: Scholars of music history seem comfortable and only have available to them exhaustive examples of men who dominate the genre of funk music. Thus, the paradigm through which most understand funk music is through the prism of masculine vibes and voices, like James Brown, George Clinton, Sun Ra, and Sly and the Family Stone. In my article in progress, I compare the feminist funk power of the fetishization of Renée Stout’s body and personas in her visual work of the 1980s and 1990s to the public images, description of performances, and lyrics of Betty Davis during the 1970s. By providing a thorough visual and theoretical analysis of the art of Renée Stout and a brief overview of the career of Betty Davis, I argue that both artists exhibit black feminist ambitions—deliberately or not. I’ll save the rest for my talk today, and, hopefully, for a YouTube version within the next couple of weeks.

Be sure to check out Light in the Attic Records to buy her re-released albums. Here’s my playlist for today:

  1. Betty Davis,  “Don’t Call Her No Tramp,” They Say I’m Different (1974) 
  2. Betty Davis, “They Say I’m Different,” They Say I’m Different (1974) 
  3. Ma Rainey’s “C.C Rider”
  4. Betty Davis, “He Was a Big Freak” (about Jimi Hendrix, not Miles), They Say I’m Different (1974)
  5. Betty Davis, “If I’m in Luck I might Get Picked Up,” Betty Davis (1973)
  6. Betty Davis,  “Nasty Gal,” Nasty Gal (1975)
  7. TRAMP” MEDLEY–Betty Davis, “Don’t Call Her No Tramp”/Otis Redding & Carla Thomas, “Tramp” (1967)/Salt-N-Pepa, “Tramp” (1986) I’m really excited about playing these songs together!
For an interview of Betty Davis, listen to Jessie Thornton’s The Sound of Young America from June 21, 2007.
I’ll be sure to post a link to the full-length article once it’s published. Wish me luck!

Q: What is COOL? A: Barkley Hendricks

It’s 2012. I’m back from a long break. The joys of motherhood demanded time spent at home over the holidays with two little ones who really could care less that I want to have some physical and mental space to blog. Pa-lease. But, I’m back. With four talks lined up on four different artists (see what’s next), I’ve got a lot of ideas that need to take shape soon. And, as promised, I’ll be working on an article about me and my mommy phd friends (I’ll try to provide some teasers on that).

So, I’m continuing to work on funk rocker Betty Davis. Along with her gritty sounds and no-nonsense sex appeal, she provides an almost surreal sense of coolness that is undeniable. It got me thinking about how I’ve thought about visual representations of cool in the past. Below is an excerpt from a study I conducted for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and their African American collections. Barkely Hendricks, a Professor of Art at Connecticut College, has been defining cool for the last four decades. His retrospective The Birth of the Cool organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University practically canonized his stake on cool. Here’s my take on the PMA’s Miss T by Hendricks from my unpublished paper, “Cooling Black Skin: Selected Portraits in the African American Collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”

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According to African art scholar Robert Farris Thompson, “An aesthetic of cool,” signifies “the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, or of responsibility and of play.”[1] For example, in observing Barkley Hendricks’ portrait Miss T (1969), one easily gets a sense of what is “cool” about her. Her introspective glance downward from behind her gold-rimmed glasses while standing casually in her black pantsuit with shiny embellishments around her waist exudes a coolness about her that is unrehearsed and smooth. Miss T is presented without the context of her surroundings of, perhaps, a Philadelphia streetscape. She is calm. She is confident. She is at peace before the onlookers’ glare, caught up in her own thoughts of problems or dreams. Hendricks’ placement of the figure before a bare, vacant background, allows Miss T to be absorbed into the canvas with just her very presence. Hendricks provides her with a certain amount of power and agency, and perhaps this self-possession is the origin of her coolness.


[1] Robert Farris Thompson, “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” African Arts, v. 7, no. 1 (Autumn, 1973), p. 41.

Parliament’s Album Covers

Building on my research on Betty Davis, I am making new discoveries about FUNK music daily. Today’s research led me to return to Tony Bolden’s The Funk Era and Beyond ((Palgrave MacMillan, 2008). After doing some reading about James Brown over the last couple of days, I wanted to familiarize myself with George Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic. I read Amy Nathan Wright, “A Philosophy of Funk: The Politics and Pleasure of a Parliafunkadelicment Thang!” So, in order to fully comprehend their evolution as a band into a philosophical (nearly religious) out-of-this-world sound, funk aesthetic experience, I was “forced” to watch George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic: The Mothership Connection, a concert in Houston (produced in 2001, but the concert I believe is from 1983). Of course, I’m looking into Afro-Futurism, too, which I’m sure will also lead me down some unexpected roads. Furthermore, I realize that I have to analyze album covers. Compare the black female body (head) in Parliament’s Maggot Brain to Betty Davis’ sophomore album cover, Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different (1974)? The difference in the woman’s placement–and resultant agency–says a lot about the trouble that Betty Davis faced as a female singersongwriter who took full control (as long as she could) of her music and production.

Maggot Brain (1971)

Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different (1974)


Betty Davis, They Say I'm Different (1974)

Other Funkadelic/Parliament album covers are rich for visual analysis as well:

America Eats Its Young (1972)

Chocolate City (1975)


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