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MAUDELLE BASS A MODEL BODY Carla Williams Throughout art history, the artist's model has been the unsung, uncredited collaborator in countless works on canvas or paper, in stone or metal. This essay focuses on the career of Maudelle Bass Weston (1908-1989), an African American artist's model and dancer known professionally as Maudelle.1 It is through her dual role as performing artist and model that Maudelle employed an expressive strategy that influenced the development of black women's representation in mid-twentieth twentieth-century art. Beginning in the 1930s, through the figuring of her mostly nude body, she enacted and defined a new, modern definition of the black woman that moved beyond the discourse of slavery, sexual degradation , and stereotype and anticipated black women's self-portraiture of the late twentieth century . Emerging out of both the New Negro period and the Modernist movement in art, Maudelle exists within a cultural framework as a bridge between the two extremes of representation for black women in the United States—the nineteenth century, in which black women had little or no control over their representations, and the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in which their decisions about how they "choose" to be depicted call into question the primacy of agency as a defense against self-exploitation. Maudelle lived and worked in a period of the twentieth century during which black women's bodies were not a part of the mainstream dialogue . The dominant image of African American women in the United States was the mammy, a large, dark-skinned, desexualized, loyal caretaker perpetuated by Hollywood and advertising, epitomized by the character of Aunt Jemima.2 In 1939, actress Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for portraying the stereotypical character of "Mammy" in the film Gone with the Wind, embodying what was then the most indelibly popular image of black women in American culture. Inscribed on that image were notions of sexuality (the neutered mammy versus the sexualized, fair-skinned Jezebel with more European features), class, and labor (domestic work).3 Maudelle conformed to none of these. Though there were movements by artists from the Harlem Renaissance through the New Negro period who actively sought to present a more complex picture of African American life and culture, Maudelle did not precisely fit their model of black womanhood and femininity either. It is necessary to foreground the difference between modeling and portraiture. Modeling is largely anonymous; the model is not so much meant to represent herself but rather is there to enact a posture or embody an ideal. However, the motivation for the model can be quite personal. According to Elizabeth Hollander, a former art 34*Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art Maudelle's first solo performance, Lobero Little Theater, Santa Barbara, California, November 1938. Photographer unknown. Reproduced in "African Rhythm," Silhouette Pictorial Hollywood, February 1939. Collection of the author. Fall 2007 N k a - 3 5 model, "the model performs for a kind of inner mirror that allows one to feel on the inside how one looks on the outside."4 Photography, of course, complicates this relationship, as the medium by its very nature tends more toward realism and individual recognition. Posing as the model for a work of art, particularly a photograph, is a type of performance work in which the cultural body enacts a signifying role that communicates beyond the artist's capabilities and aspirations for the work. According to the historian Hugh Kilmer, "(modeling] is performance brought to its most elemental, without external support of any kind; text, sounds, costume, or furniture."5 There are many reasons why Maudelle's work is significant. To begin with, she was often (though not consistently) identified by name—it was very uncommon in the 1930s and 1940s for models of any race to be identified, let alone given recognition for their work.6 Though Maudelle worked as a model, her own performance work and the relative recognition that came with it certainly were brought to bear on all of her sittings. Additionally, there are more than fifty known extant images of Maudelle by different artists. Over the course of her career, she would pose for, among others, the painters...


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