Joyce J. Scott's Mammy/Nanny Series

by Terry Gips
Joyce J. Scott's Mammy/Nanny Series
Terry Gips
Feminist Studies
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Since about 1970, internationally acclaimed Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott has been presenting ideas and images that make us laugh, cry, cringe, and rejoice. She also captivates us with the beautiful colors, textures, and shapes of the objects she cre- ates and with the ingenious monologues, music (Scott also sings), and theatrics of the narratives she performs. Scott works simultaneously as a craftsperson, cultural critic, and performer. She wears many hats-or rather one hat of many colors-as artist, feminist, African American, world traveler, and champion of social and community causes. The portfolio of images presented in these pages from the "MammyINanny" se- ries is a revealing selection of Joyce Scott's recent sculpture, as well as a snapshot of who she is.

I first saw Scott's work at Washington, D.C.'s Renwick Gal- lery in 1990 in an extraordinary exhibition of artists who used beads. Her pieces in this exhibition hovered between sculpture and jewelry. In fact, several pieces were in the form of neck- laces of thousands of tiny glistening beads threaded into intri- cate abstract patterns, sometimes into representations of hu- man figures and other forms. Then, in 1991, I saw her solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, "I-con-no-body/I-con-o- graphy." It was there that I first experienced Joyce Scott's acer- bic strategy of melding beauty and horror. In Neck-Lace Party (South African Necktie Party), I saw an image of torture, a flaming tire placed around a victim's neck. I had leaned over close to the small, jewel-like object in order to get a better look at the amazing technique the artist had used to create from tiny beads three-dimensional forms, rippling surfaces, and irregular edges. However, I jerked back when I deciphered the

Ferhinist Studies 22, no. 2(summer 1996). O 1996by Feminist Studies, Inc. 311

Terry Gips

black donut shape, the reddened face with bulging eyes, and the tongues of flames reaching out in all directions.

In the "MammyINanny" series, objects made from 1986 to the early 1990s, Scott confronts the viewer with the contradic- tions and hypocrisies embedded in the historical-and continu- ing- culture surrounding the Black women who served as nan- nies for white America. Taken together, these sculptures por- tray the waffling views of whites toward these women-first raising them to a sacred pedestal as nurturing, trusted care- taker, and stand-in mother-and then, when no longer needed or when on other turf, relegating them to an inferior class, one spurned because of race. In addition, these white families teach (andlor allow to be taught) these very same children who have been comforted and rocked to sleep by their Black nanny to, in Scott's words, "call you nigger as soon as they learn the word."

These sculptures also remind us that the Black children of nannies often seem to take a backseat to the white children their mothers care for. Perhaps there aren't enough arms or hours to go around, but more insidious is the fact that the same schools, food, and trips to the parks and museums are not available to children of both colors. While the days of the wet nurse's need to short her own child to feed her master's are behind us, the tug-of-war over her body still exists.

Scott articulates the mammylnanny conflict through suc- cinct statements such as No Mommy Me, I which consists of a Black female figure holding a white baby of pearly pink beads up high in her outstretched arms while a Black child desper- ately clings to her long skirt. In No Mommy Me, 11, a little Black girl sits apart on the floor, seemingly screaming for her mother's attention. In another, titled Madonna and Child, a Black woman with a headed halo holds two children-not one. A Black child is held in her left arm and a pink child in her right. Each is pressed against a generous breast.

But just as the politics and the psychology of the mammy1 nanny are intricate so are Scott's figures. Although the children in this series are made of translucent beads, the mammieslnan- nies have skin of chocolate, brownish-black, opaque leather. Aprons or other clothing details may be articulated, but rarely is color or texture used. An occasional cluster of beads marks eyes or mouth on an otherwise masked figure. As Scott says,

Terry Gips

she was interested in presenting the idea of the "black mono- lith . . .a big, black mask."

This skin or mask works in several ways. It is the oversim- plified picture of the Black woman, the construct of white soci- ety resulting from the stereotyping directed toward Black women. It is also the shield the Black woman raises when faced with such stereotypes, and also, at times, the shell which contains her rage against the dominant culture. In Chainsaw Mammy and Out to Dry as well as in other sculptures and per- formance works, Scott does not hide the possibility of violence. As the title of her Corcoran show reads, "I-con-no-body."

But if the audience also laughs, albeit nervously, that is Joyce Scott's intention. For her, humor is a critical and useful element. It allows her to address difficult material and to bring the audience into the dialogue. Although her art is high- ly sophisticated, it is also intentionally highly accessible. In addition to humor, Scott's choice of craft materials and com- mon stories creates a familiar language. She also makes refer- ences to the traditions of African and African American cul- tures, folk traditions of many other nations, and even more specifically, the work of several members of her family. She of- ten tells of the continuity she feels with her mother, grand- mothers, and also a great-grandfather, who were quiltmakers; and with one grandfather who was a basketmaker and black- smith; and the other, a woodworker. Like their functional works, Scott's sculpture and her performance art can delight, entertain, and educate. Simultaneously her work is a mirror in front of which we dare not blink.

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