- The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis and Renée Stout
I sell the shadow to support the substance.Sojourner Truth
Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside out.1Audre Lorde
Fine artists have historically looked to music (and musicians) as sources of inspiration for both subject matter and form. In twentieth-century American art, for example, artists like Romare Bearden, Jackson Pollock, and David Hammons, among many others, sought out jazz, in particular, to enhance their visual vocabulary, to inform their improvisational applications of materials, and/or to incorporate various themes of representation.2 Many contemporary artists are making headway into transforming American art through the manipulation of signs and form along with more complex readings, writings, and visualizations of black identity in American popular culture and music than has traditionally been available, especially for art historians.3 However, outside of the genre [End Page 57] of hip-hop, few scholars treat female musicians and fine artists directly as an evocative dialectic.4 This essay offers an analysis of the visual cultures of black women’s bodily self-presentations and mis-representations by engaging the career of funk rocker Betty Davis with the artistic oeuvre of Renée Stout.5
During the 1970s, Betty Davis was at the height of her short-lived career, and the provocative images of the confident performer wearing racy costumes continue to endure. The recent rerelease in 2007 of Davis’s three albums has helped reignite an interest in not only her music, but also her visual bravado.6 Davis projected a self-assured, sexually charged, musically creative singer-songwriter that resulted in a more limited audience and less commercial success. She never saw herself as an agent for women’s liberation or race politics, but the persona of Betty Davis, vis-à-vis her image and her music, has taken on a life of its own as a symbol of sexual liberation.
While the music world has undoubtedly taken notice, her iconic status has not been lost on visual artists. In particular, Betty Davis’s funk façade complements Renée Stout’s daring full body cast, Fetish #2 (1988), and her personas, Madame Ching and Fatima Mayfield, in unexpected ways. When asked directly about Stout’s musical influences, Betty Davis was indeed at the top of her list.7 Davis and Stout have respectively attempted to control the production and expression of original material throughout their careers, most especially in the visual representations of themselves. In so doing, both artists exhibit black feminist ambitions, deliberately or not. Furthermore, Davis and Stout demonstrate in music and art forms, what I call a “feminist funk power,” a performative funk that forces the viewer to reinvent one’s very conception of black female agency in light of their original physical expression of art forms.
Betty Davis: Working Out a Funk of Her Own
Born Elizabeth Mabry on July 26, 1945, Betty Davis was raised in North Carolina, primarily in Durham.8 She also lived with her grandmother in rural Reisdville, sixty miles northwest. Her mother and grandmother used to listen to the blues. She enjoyed the rawness and simplicity of musicians like Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor, and Johnnie Taylor. She didn’t take music lessons, but she would write the lyrics and the melody would follow. Around the time that she moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, she wrote her first song, “I’m Gonna Bake That Cake of Love.” She was twelve years old.9
She moved to New York in 1962, at age sixteen, to live with an aunt and to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied fashion design. She first supported herself through sales and clerical jobs. By age nineteen, she secured enough...