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Topsy-Turvy

Good Hair

Artwork by Nina I. Buxenbaum. On display January 4 - February 18, 2018.

Curator Statement

Nina Buxenbaum sees her work as a series of moments, or cinematic stills, in which actors role play in order to challenge our desire for definition. This series was inspired by “Topsy-Turvy” dolls, which first emerged in the 19th century and are typically based on racial or regional caricatures. Provocative, sometimes painful, but always deeply engaging, these works ask us not to turn away but to look more intently at layered possibilities.

Buxenbaum’s beautifully detailed, lushly rendered paintings wink at Delacroix, Manet, and Goya, yet with a wholly contemporary look at the multitude of ways we create identities and seek to label them. The characters are inspired by a large circle of the artist, including friends, cousins, and other relatives. Subjects are costumed in rich colors and satiny fabrics (often cast-off prom dresses), evoking romantic motifs interplaying with less definable expressions and postures.

Tension stems from our not fully understanding what’s happening, and is further heightened by the depiction of multiple ambiguities in identity: racial, sexual, geographical, social, temporal. Orientalia infuses beauty and color in the backgrounds, imagery that also suggests historical traditions and cross-cultural appropriation.

Everything about these works feels topsy-turvy—thrown off balance—the better to delve deeper into questions the artist wishes to open, not close.

Artist Statement

I began my work as an exploration of images of African-American women in our society. As an African-American woman of mixed heritage, I approach my work as an opportunity to position women of color into the Western art canon where we have been conspicuously absent.  We judge a culture and a civilization by the images and art objects that they create. I have always focused on creating honest and personal depictions of women, particularly women of color, as a means to provide an alternative to the stereotypes prevalent in our culture. 

I use the “Topsy-Turvy” doll as a metaphor of black women and the way we learn to define ourselves.  The doll, whose name is derived from the character of Topsy in the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is designed to look like a southern belle on one side, but her dress conceals a black girl underneath.
 
Through the flip doll, I explore my personal expression of self as a biracial woman, and also play with the metamorphosis of identity.  I am also interested in the ability of this subject matter to address femininity as it relates to cultural constructs including class and race. The complexity of identity is one of transformation and redefinition: it is mutable.  

These dueling images deal with some of the complexities of identity that go beyond race. Much of the work is autobiographical; it is the personal versus the public persona that I am exploring. The internal self and the self we project out to the world are often disparate or opposing, sometimes in subtle ways. As I continue to paint these women, I find deeper layers that tell more complex stories about who we are and who we pretend to be.

Q & A from the Opening Reception

Topsy-Turvy