One of the most controversial African-American artists working today, Renee Cox has used her own body, both nude and clothe, to celebrate black womanhood and criticize a society she often views as racist and sexist.
She was born on October 16, 1960, in Colgate, Jamaica, into an upper middle-class family, who later settled in Scarsdale, New York. Cox's first ambition was to become a filmmaker. "I was always interested in the visual," she said in one interview. "But I had a baby boomer reaction and was into the immediate gratification of photography as opposed to film, which is a more laborious project."
From the very beginning, her work showed a deep concern for social issues and employed disturbing religious imagery. In It Shall Be Named (1994), a black man's distorted body made up of eleven separate photographs hangs from a cross, as much resembling a lynched man as the crucified Christ.
In her first one-woman show at a New York gallery in 1998, Cox made herself the center of attention. Dressed in the colorful garb of a black superhero named Raje, Cox appeared in a series of large, color photographs. In one picture she towered over a cab in Times Square. In another, she broke steel chains before an erupting volcano. In the most pointed picture, entitled The Liberation of UB and Lady J, Cox's Raje rescued the black stereotyped advertising figures of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima from their products, labels. The photograph was featured on the cover of the French newspaper Le Monde.
"These slick, color-laden images, their large format and Cox's own powerfully beautiful figure heighten the visual impact of the work, making Cox's politics clear and engaging," wrote one critic.
But her next photographic series would be less engaging for some people and create a firestorm of controversy. In the series Flipping the Script, Cox took a number of European religious masterpieces, including Michelangelo's David and The Pieta, and reinterpreted them with contemporary black figures.
"...Christianity is big in the African-American community, but there are no presentations of us," she said. "I took it upon myself to include people of color in these classic scenarios."
The photograph that created the most controversy when it was shown in a black photography exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City in 2001 was Yo Mama's Last Supper. It was a remake of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper with a nude Cox sitting in for Jesus Christ, surrounded by all black disciples, except for Judas who was white. Many Roman Catholics were outraged at the photograph and New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani called for the forming of a commission to set "decency standards" to keep such works from being shown in any New York museum that received public funds.
Cox responded by stating "I have a right to reinterpret the Last Supper as Leonardo da Vinci created the Last Supper with people who look like himŠ.The hoopla and the fury are because I'm a black femaleŠ. It's about me having nothing to hide."
Renee Cox continues to push the envelop in her work, questioning society and the roles it gives to blacks and women with her elaborate scenarios and imaginative visuals that offend some and exhilarate others.