Renée Cox is one of the most important photographers living today. Establishing herself in the male-dominated fashion industry, she first built a portfolio in the United States and France. Photographing many of America’s top models (from Joan Severance to Iman) for the likes of Vogue Homme, she eventually shifted her focus to image making, via conceptual photography and portraiture in the realm of fine art.
Though few of Cox’s works have been seen in their entirety, she’s most known for her large-scale photographic panels: Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Raje and Yo Mama’s Last Supper, the latter of which struck a nerve with former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The controversy that ensued nearly overshadowed the depth of Cox’s work, which counters dominant ideologies via the holistic empowerment of the feminine.
“Her work has been under-scrutinized,” stated photo historian Carla Williams. “It has not received the critical attention that it deserves. Yet her work is extremely important, particularly in the discussion around the Black female body.”
Cox presents women of status and stature. They’re neither hypersexual nor submissive, thus do not lend themselves to the erotic gaze. Her current work, Sacred Geometry, consists of digitally manipulated black and white portraits executed with precision—creating sculptural kaleidoscopes of the human body while exploring the power of symbols as elements of collective imagination.
In total, Cox’s work is an exquisite voyage, inviting us into a powerful and conscientious space by inverting and redesigning our curated realties.—Una Kariim
EBONY: Is deconstructing stereotypes and empowerment a theme that remains relevant in your work?
Renée Cox: Deconstructing stereotypes has been an integral part of my work since the beginning in 1993. I have dealt with issues around motherhood by creating images that would empower women the world over; by not hiding pregnancy but creating photographs celebrating pregnancy. Following that was the Raje series, a female superhero who has roots in Wonder Woman, [and] Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Jamaica’s only female national hero. She’s showing strength, perseverance, courage and smarts in order to keep her people free. All of my work has been about empowerment and creating images that uplift our people up, who have been misrepresented for the last 300 years.
EBONY: Reflecting on the history of photography, describe photography now.
RC: Photography now is about memory. There’s magic to it, but it’s at a crossroads. It’s being taken for granted because everybody feels that they can do it. Everyone has a camera in his/her phone, and everybody’s recording everything. We’re being bombarded by too many images, and it’s making us not really look at the image.
Now, the photographer—even myself in some ways—is feeling compelled to get the photograph off of the walls. With the advent of social media and sharing, it’s flattened the photograph, so people don’t have the same sort of regard for the photograph anymore.
EBONY: What photo shoots will you always remember?
RC: Quite a few from working with Ionia Dunn-Lee. We had a good team. We shot in Paris and that was really fun. My Seventeen magazine covers, and shooting the School Daze poster.
EBONY: Who are the contemporary artists and photographers whose work is exciting to you?
RC: Kehinde [Wiley]. I like his work and I get the concept. I like the notion of empowering people, especially Black people who have been disempowered. Also, Deena Lawson. She’s pushing the envelope into a world that we have not seen, and that’s exciting.
EBONY: Do you still feel an urgency to create images that tell a counter-narrative of Black people?
RC: I do feel an urgency, especially when we have tragedies like Trayvon Martin, whereby a young man was stereotyped for wearing a hoodie. I believe that [most] people have not really had access to the imagery that we create. However, people get a lot of exposure to images that we have no control over, going back to a Birth of a Nation—where we were represented as brutes, criminals and whores. If we don’t tell our stories, who will? The time is now to have a more inclusive role in the conceptual production of our images.