Aesthetics of Excess: The Art of Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment
Duke University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Jackie Pedota
In Aesthetics of Excess: The Art of Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment, Jillian Hernández explores the transracial and intergenerational dialogues and connections created as part of Women on the Rise!, a feminist community arts project based in North Miami, to reclaim a mainstream understanding of excess and gender performance by Black and Latina women. As conceptualized by Hernández, ‘excess’ is the often physical representation (e.g., large hoops, long colorful nails) of abundance by Black and Latina girls and women used to embrace what they have despite their socioeconomic status and establish legitimacy within a neoliberal society that seeks to dehumanize them. Her book is an extension of her participatory research with these girls and women where she used charlas (informal conversations), workshops, and autoethnography to address the statistical reality for young Girls of Color who are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system in Florida. Hernández demonstrates within the five chapters and epilogue how creativity, expression, and critical dialogues can be a way to mitigate the impacts of systemic racism in a way that disrupts White Eurocentric aesthetic standards, embraces ethnic roots, promotes sexual autonomy, and celebrates individualized Black and Latina authentic embodiment. Moreover, the text itself serves as an anti-racist, queer, class-disrupting, and feminist creative expression by incorporating art, photos, and prose from artists, Women on the Rise! participants, and Hernández herself.
Hernández is intentional and nuanced in her language choice, topics addressed, and writing style within Aesthetics of Excess. Rather than using Women of Color and generalizing experiences, outcomes, and narratives, she is deliberate in using Black and Latina women given how these identities and the interactions between these two identities have played out socially and politically over time in South Florida. She uses her own experiences having lived in Miami to situate her understanding of anti-Blackness within the Latinx community and how that has played a role historically in racializing, policing, and yet at the same time appropriating and monetizing sexuality. She draws the reader in throughout her book by incorporating personal reflections showing how as a researcher, activist, and artist, reflection is needed to understand personal positionality and biases.
In Chapter One, “Reading Black and Latina Embodiment in Miami,” Hernández explores the history of Miami as it contextualizes the nuances and complexities that exist within the majority-minority city. Hernández critically examines Miami to speak to the gentrification, history of art and appropriation, racialized immigration system, and historical silences with respect to gendered narratives of Black and Latina women. This context is crucial to fully understand the ways anti-Blackness and heteropatriarchy influence present-day Miami. Chapter Two, “Sexual-Aesthetic Excess: Or How Chonga Girls Make Class Burn,” builds upon this place-based context by drawing on more recent characterizations and caricatures of Latina embodiment known colloquially in Miami as the chonga. Like cholas in Los Angeles, chongas in Miami are racialized and mocked in popular culture, which shapes the ways they navigate their everyday lives as real people who reject class and assimilation to Whiteness. Hernández further complicates this type of Latina aesthetic by highlighting through participant narratives how chongas are perceived by some as an appropriation of Blackness whereas others see it as a celebration of difference and performance of freedom. She does not hesitate to lean into these tensions between Black and Latina women and shows how she used the charlas as an opportunity to build bridges and promote healing.
In Chapter Three,” ‘Fine as Hell:’ The Aesthetic Erotics of Masculinity,” Hernández explores the queer gender performance of Black and Latina women by centering masculine-body-presenting women and how their styles and embodiment are viewed by Women on the Rise! participants as a performance of power. She draws on Black queer history and on the narratives of queer Women on the Rise! participants to explore how they challenge respectability politics, navigate familial relationships, and negotiate pressures to belong within a heteronormative society. Through this exploration, the reader can see how masculine-body-presenting women are in even more vulnerable positions than chongas as their embodiment is perceived not only as a threat to Whiteness but also as a threat to masculinity. Over time through the charlas and workshops, Women on the Rise! participants were able to challenge their own perceptions of norms around gender and gender expression that work to uphold the gender binary.
Hernández’s use of popular culture continues in Chapter Four, “Rococo Pink: The Power of Nicki Minaj’s Aesthetic of Fakery,” where she reframes and reclaims fakery, body modifications, and hyper-femininity, challenging the patriarchal gaze and societal norms enforcing racial authenticity. She problematizes historical and contemporary discourse centered on fake, exaggerated aesthetics and how pressures to embody more ‘natural’ aesthetics illustrate and reproduce established hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, and self-expression. Hernández uses Nicki Minaj as a prime example for more nuanced and multiple understandings of style choices, embodiment, and art, explicitly invoking how notions of fakery are weaponized while being monetized through racial capitalism. Minaj is a prime example of how Black and Latina women both disrupt and repurpose neoliberal ideologies by presenting new frameworks of looking at expression, performance, and embodiment.
The last chapter, “Encounters with Excess: Girls Creating Art, Theory, and Sexual Bodies,” focuses on Women on the Rise! participants, the work they produced through the project, and the challenges Hernandez and project coordinators experienced while attempting to operate within historically exclusive, hegemonic, and violent institutions. She describes the pedagogies present within the Women on the Rise! project, the power of this type of praxis, and the theories employed by the Black and Latina girls and women in their everyday lives. Thus, Hernandez challenges the act of theorizing, who can theorize, and where one theorizes, disrupting the notion that theories exist and are operationalized only within academia. Within the chapter, project participants theorize about their lives through art. They articulate and display themselves as racialized, gendered, and sexualized beings. Through both the Women on the Rise! project and Hernandez’s book, Black and Latina girls and women are able to use art as a mechanism to communicate what they cannot share verbally, positing a future where these types of practices may be used and replicated for similar communities.
Aesthetics of Excess closes with the epilogue that describes the ways in which Women on the Rise! and art by Black and Latina creatives has been appropriated and co-opted through the elite art industry and corporations. Hernandez details the hegemonic challenges within the art world and provides examples of the ways in which museums and broader society commodify art by Black and Latina women, particularly drawing attention to their role in gentrifying Miami. In this way, art can provide social commentary while simultaneously upholding the hegemony it seeks to critique. Despite bleak realities where these neoliberal institutions will never fully and unselfishly support the art and scholarship of Black and Latina women, Hernandez ends the book with art, allowing it to speak for itself and to provide the reader with hope for future possibilities.