eliza berkon is a features writer and musician based in washington d.c. 

This New Art Exhibit Is All About Bodies, But Not The Kind The Media Usually Shows Us

It might seem like overkill to build an exhibit around body image in a culture that already seems obsessed with it: An Amazon search for books on body image yields more than 9,000 results. TV shows like My 600-lb Life and Botched are a dime a dozen. Aging appears to be barringsome older women from jobs. In 2015, more people died taking a selfie than in shark attacks. And colorism remains pervasive.

Yet just as Americans may get nauseated from the amount of time many of us spend obsessing over others’ bodies, and our own, there’s always something new to explore.

This Saturday, Bodies, an exhibit that examines the varied ways in which we conceptualize, scrutinize and give value to the human form, opens at the Otis Street Arts Project in Mount Rainier, Md. It’s a show of photographs, drawings, and other media that curator Amy Lokoff says she conceived earlier this year after reading books by feminists bell hooks and Lindy West.

“Capitalism teaches us to hate our bodies and to constantly be working to correct them,” Lokoff says. “So I think part of [the show’s impetus] was confronting my own discomfort but also thinking about how I am talking to other people about their bodies.”

For Dafna Steinberg, a 35-year-old mixed-media artist in D.C. who frequently references the female form in her work, a woman’s feelings about her own body are entangled with her own self-worth. She explores these connections in her photo series on view in this exhibit, La Belle Fleur Sauvage (This Is My Body), in which we see her both clothed and nude in hotel rooms and other intimate spaces.

“We talk a lot about women’s values, and the value of a woman is based a lot on her body,” Steinberg says. “Can she reproduce? Can she be sexually active? Can she do hard labor of just being a mom and a wife and all these things?”

Likewise, D.C.-based portraitist Ashley Ja’nae, 28, is invested in portraying African-American women outside of the roles that she says American media usually casts them in. In her pen-and-ink depictions of black women, Ja’nae says she’d like to combat depictions of African-American females as either overtly sexual or in "asexual" roles such as mammies.

“Neither of those are really recognizing the breadth and the depth of black women," Ja'nae says. "It’s just, 'We’re here to serve a purpose or entertain,' rather than really digging [into] who we are as people. And that has great effects on how we’re seen in the world and how people treat us. So my work is trying to center us as real people.”

Another artist, Prince George’s County-based Hard Stitched (who is using a pseudonym for Bodies due to the graphic nature of his pieces), employs a somewhat unlikely medium for his renderings of gay African-American men: embroidery.

The 30-year-old, self-taught textile artist picked up the art form on a 2015 trip to Cambodia and Thailand, where he says he saw men and women in the service industry stitching in the interludes between serving customers. For Bodies, he's presenting nine hand-made works that he says he created as a sort of catharsis following his own sexual abuse. One is a striking piece of a nude man wearing a necklace (which he says may represent a "noose, slave chains, ownership in general, and wanting to fit into society") standing in front of the U.S. flag with one hand across his heart and a smartphone in the other.

"A lot of these images are about eroticization and self-worth because, again, you're selling yourself online for the hopes of clicks," the artist says.

Matt Storm also seeks to provide an honest depiction of a community that has arguably been underrepresented and misrepresented in the art world. For Bodies, the D.C.-based photographer, 27, expands on a collection he started in 2017, Act of Looking. In that series of self-portraits, Storm is seen in varied poses that expose his body, conveying at once vulnerability and strength. As a transgender man, Storm says he is frequently asked about his body in ways that straight men usually aren’t.

“When people encounter transgender people, sometimes they’re so fixated on some trans person’s identity and on what parts does this person have or what medical history does this person have or how was this person born, that they’re effectively thinking about this transgender person as naked to begin with,” Storm says.

To get to a place where we stop judging others on their appearance, Lokoff says we need to be looking at the "full spectrum."

"The bodies we usually see are thin, white or light-skinned, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual and clearly identify with one side of the gender binary," she writes in an email.

Bodies stares those ideals in the face.

Bodies runs from September 15 to October 13, at Otis Street Arts Project (3706 Otis St., Mount Rainier, MD), free entry. Gallery hours are Saturdays 12-5 and by appointment by emailing amy.lokoff@gmail.com. An opening reception takes place September 15 from 5 p.m.-8 p.m.

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