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Renee Cox moved to Queens, New York at the age of three months, where she attended Catholic school and was the first girl to play on the boys’ basketball team. She moved with her family to Scarsdale, New York at the age of 14. At the time, the Cox family was one of only seven black families residing in the area.
Renee Cox is known for her bold, politically motivated self-portraits. The photographs often play upon and subvert classical art historical images. Cox is famous for her two alter-egos Yo Mama and Raje, both bold, black women who are out to right the injustices of sexism and racism.
Early photographic work
As a student at Syracuse University Cox majored in Film Studies, but after graduating decided to devote her energy to still photography. She began as an Assistant Fashion Editor at Glamour Magazine and then moved to Paris to pursue a career as a fashion photographer. She spent three years working in Paris, shooting for magazines including Votre Beaute and Vogue Homme and for designers Issey Miyake, and Claude Montana, among others.
Cox then returned to New York City, where she continued to work as a fashion photographer for ten years. Among her clients were editorial magazines such as Essence, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Seventeen Magazine, and Sportswear International. She also worked with Spike Lee, producing the poster for his 1988 film School Daze.
In the early 1990s, inspired by the birth of her first son, Cox decided to focus primarily on fine art photography. She received her Master of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York and subsequently spent a year working with Mary Kelly and Ron Clark in the Whitney Independent Study Program.
Cox has stated that her “main concern is the deconstruction of stereotypes and the empowerment of women.” She uses herself as her primary model in order to promote an idea of “self-love” as articulated by bell hooks in her book Sisters of the Yam, because as Cox writes in an artist's statement, “slavery stripped black men and women of their dignity and identity and that history continues to have an adverse affect on the African American psyche.” One of Cox’s main motivations has always been to create new, positive visual representations of African Americans.
As Greg Tate, writer for The Village Voice, wrote: “(Renee’s) her own heroine. She’s very much about using the work as a platform for self-love. And she’s clearly having fun in her role playing. It’s a very New York attitude: ‘Yeah, so what? I’m Jesus. I’m Wonder Woman.”
In 1994, Renee Cox exhibited her piece “It Shall Be Named” in the show Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, a show curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. A review of the show published in Art in America described the work as referring “back to traditional art forms—in this case, the shaped crucifixes of 13th and 14th century Italy—with deep solemnity. The modern “distortions” and elisions of Cox’s representation interact with the reference to iconic martyrdom to evoke the terrible history of lynchings, beatings and emasculation visited on the bodies of black men in this country.”
That same year, Cox’s seven-foot nude self-portrait “Yo Mama” was included in the Bad Girls show curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum. Renee Cox was the first woman ever to be pregnant during the Whitney Independent Study Program, pregnant at the time with her second son, which motivated her to create the Yo Mama character and series of photographs. In the photograph Renee stands nude, wearing black high heels, brandishing her older son as if he were a weapon.
Writing for Vogue Magazine, Roberta Smith described “Yo Mama” as “One of the most striking images in the East Coast portion of the Bad Girls exhibition…A towering self-portrait, it showed the artist, naked except for a pair of black high heels, holding her two-year-old son…The image presents a woman, both regal and erotic, who seems singularly disinclined to take guff from anyone and whose son will undoubtedly grow up to respect her gender.”
In 1995, Renee Cox, Fo Wilson and Tony Cokes created the Negro Art Collective to fight cultural misinformation about African Americans. The collective, working with Creative Time and Gee Street Records, created a poster campaign to challenge people’s preconceived notions about race, crime and poverty. “As far as representation, we have to take it back,” Cox explained to the Daily News. The NAC appropriated a quote from scholar Charles Murray and added their commentary so as to appropriate the quote for their purposes. The idea was to present viewers with real information, which flies in the face of what Americans are taught to believe. The 24 by 36 inch posters read: “Surprise, Surprise, ‘in raw numbers, European-American whites are the ethnic group with the most people in poverty, most illegitimate children, most people on welfare, most unemployed men, and most arrests for serious crimes.’ Surprised.” The posters ran in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. The project was originally inspired by Cox’s five-year-old son who had asked her one day: “Why are all black people bad?”
Soon after, Cox created her Raje alter-ego, a superhero who fights racism and teaches children African American history. In 1998 the body of work was featured in a Fin de Siècle art festival in Nantes, France. The photographs were installed on billboards all over the city. Nantes was historically the last stop on the slave trade, before the ships would return to Africa to pick up their human cargo.
In 1999, Cox’s work was shown in the Venice Biennale, in the Oratorio di S. Ludivico, a 17th Century Catholic Church. Cox’s piece "Yo Mama's Last Supper" a contemporary re-imagining of Leonardo da Vinci’s classic, was first shown there. In Cox’s version she stood nude in the place of Jesus Christ and was surrounded by all black apostles, except Judas who is white.
In 2001, the piece was included in a Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers, curated by Barbara Millstein. The image sparked an enormous controversy when Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, saw the work and proceeded to accuse Cox of being anti-Catholic. Giuliani gained national attention when he subsequently called for the creation of a panel to create decency standards for all art shown at publicly funded museums in the city. Giuliani told the Daily News that he did “not believe that it is right for public money to be used to desecrate religion, to attack people’s ethnicity.”
Renee Cox publicly responded to Giuliani’s accusations by defending her first amendment right to portray herself as Christ. As Cox explained, her Catholic school education taught her that all human beings were created in the likeness of God. “It’s all very hypocritical,” she was quoted as saying in the Daily News, “now that he has been busted with the other woman, I wouldn’t be talking about moral issues.” At the time, Giuliani had recently admitted his affair with long-time friend Judy Nathan and proceeded to divorce his wife, Donna Hanover.
This was the second time during Giuliani’s tenure that he attempted to censor art shown in New York City’s museums and it sparked a national controversy about artist’s first amendment rights.
In 2002, Cox opened a show at the Robert Miller Gallery called American Family. The series featured family snap shots, as well as older family photographs juxtaposed with erotic self-portraits, and new re-creations of art historical classics. Cox has written that “The body of work was a rebellion against all of the pre-ordained roles I am supposed to embrace as a woman: dutiful daughter, diminutive wife, and doting mother.”
Later that year Cox undertook another series of photographs, this one named for the Jamaican national heroine Queen Nanny of the Maroons. In the series, Cox took on the persona of Queen Nanny, who in the 18th century led a rebellion against the British for the freedom of slaves. Queen Nanny of the Maroons was originally shown at the Robert Miller Gallery in 2005. Cox then exhibited the body of work in the Jamaican Biennial in 2007 where it won the Aaron Matalon Award.
Renee Cox continues to show and is currently at work on her next body of photographs.
In addition to making art Renee Cox has curated and acted. She has done projects for Rush Art Gallery from its inception. In 1996 she curated an exhibition entitled No Doubt at the Aldrich Museum of Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut and she co-starred in Bridgett Davis’ award-winning independent film Naked Acts, where she portrayed a photographer.
Awards, residencies, fellowships
- 1993 Creative Time Inc. – Street Poster Project, Mama I Thought Only Black People Were Bad (executed in collaboration with Tony Cokes)
- 1996 Artists Fellowship Award, New York Foundation for the Arts
The MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, NH
- 1997 Artists-in-Residence Program, Light Works, Syracuse, New York
- 2007 Aaron Matalon Award, The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica
Chrysalis Award, Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts
2001 Adjunct Professor, New York University, New York
1996 Cristinerose Gallery, New York, Raje: A Superhero: The Beginning of a Bold New Era (February 21- March 28)
2000 Ambrosino Gallery, Coral Gables, FL, Peoples Project 2000 (a portrait project)
2001 Robert Miller Gallery, New York, Renee Cox: American Family (October 10-November 10)
2005 Robert Miller Gallery, New York, Renee Cox: Queen Nanny of the Maroons (February 24-March 26)
1993 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art (Thelma Golden, Curator)
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, Bad Girls (Marcia Tucker Curator)
1995 Pace/McGill Gallery, New York, Large Bodies (Peter McGill Curator)
The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston, Sites of Being (Milena Kalinovska and Lia Gangitano, Curator)
1996 Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, CT, No Doubt (Renee Cox, Curator)
UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ in Feminist Art History (April 24-August 18)
1997 Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Gendered Visions (Prof. Salah Hassan and Dorothy Desir-Davis, Curators)
1998 Looking Forward Looking Back, Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, Wayne State University, Detroit (February 5- March 26)
1999 Oratorio di S. Ludivico/New School, Venice, Venice Biennale (Kathy Goncharov, Curator)
Fin de Siecle, Nantes, Frances, New York a Nantes (Patricia Solini, Curator)
The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, Picturing of the Modern Amazon (Laurie Fierstein, Curator)
2000 Smithsonian Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photography (Deborah Willis, Curator)
2001 Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, Committed to the Image (Barbara Millstein, Curator) (February 16 – April 29)
2002 Edward Mitterrand Fine Arts, Geneva, Super Heroes (March 7-April 20)
Robert Miller Gallery, New York, Art & Outrage (June 5–15) exhibition presented by the Trio Network, Inc, and USA Cable)
2003 Zabriske Gallery, New York, Who? Me? : Role-Play in Self-Portrait Photography (December 17, 2002- January 24, 2003)
Henry Radford Hope School of fine Arts, Indiana University, Bloomington, Feminine Persuasion (February 14-March 14)
2003-2004 Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Splat Boom Pow! The influence of Comics in Contemporary Art (September 17, 2003- January 4, 2004)
2004 Busan Biennale 2004, Busan, South Korea (August 21-October 31, 2004)
2005 The Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, African Queen (January 26-March 27)
LeRoy Neiman Gallery, Columbia University School of Visual Arts, New York, The Divine Body (October 3–27)
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, The Forest: Politics, poetics, and Practice (October 2, 2005 – January 29, 2006)
2006 Gigantic ArtSpace [GAS], New York,. Artificial Afrika (January 27-March 17)
2006-2008 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, Soul Food! (November 16-April 22)
Jamaican Biennial, The National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica (December 3, 2006 – March 10, 2007)
Charles, Nick. “Art of fighting stereotypes.” Daily News (New York) 13 August 1995.
Colangelo, Lisa and Michael R. Blood “Rufy & ‘Yo Mama,’” Daily News (New York) 16 February 2001.
Cox, Renee. “Artist’s Statement.” The Feminist Art Base. The Brooklyn Museum: The Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/renee_cox.php
Cox, Renée, Jo Anna Isaak and Robert Miller Gallery (2001). Renée Cox: American Family. Robert Miller Gallery.
Liss, Andrea. 'Feminist Art and the Maternal'. University of Minnesota Press. 93-107. ISBN 9780816646227
Nochlin, Linda. “Learning From “Black Male”” Art in America, March 1995; 90.
Smith, Roberta. “body of evidence.” Vogue, August 1994.
Srivastav, Vinita. “The Woman Behind the Storm.” Savoy Magazine, May 2001; 40.