Rivers of ink, including a tiny bit of mine, have been written about Judy Chicago's seminal installation The Dinner Party. But it only recently occurred to me (duh) that for a project whose primary objective was the celebration of women's contribution to history, this is an extraordinarily non-inclusive piece. In fact, of the 39 place settings only one is dedicated to a non-white woman, African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth.
The debate is at least twofold here:
1. On the subject of inclusivity, it is obvious that Chicago's work was overwhelmingly driven by a binary view of gender and focused on countering the male-dominated historical narratives and on dismantling patriarchal structures. This resulted in a failure to explore any thoughts on race or diversity and, while striving to rewrite a more universal history, Chicago and her hundreds of collaborators perpetuated exclusion.
2. From the point of view of the visual representation, Truth's plate stands out from the rest because it was not crafted using the symbolic vulvar motifs. Is this more figurative and literal depiction a mere stylistic choice or does it indicate a denial of black sexuality and of the black experience as a whole?
Author and activist Alice Walker was very critical of the Dinner Party's racial dynamics: "It occurred to me that perhaps white women feminists […] can not imagine black women have vaginas. Or if they can, where imagination leads them is too far to go" Walker's point exposes a racial gap in the discourse of 2nd wave feminism and its inability to integrate and represent black sexuality as part of a unified female narrative. All this being said, I absolutely loved The Dinner Party and believe it remains a cornerstone of feminist art practice that has enduring social, historical and artistic value.
Judy Chicago (b. 1939)
The Dinner Party: Sojourner Truth place setting, 1974–79
Photos Brooklyn Museum
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Bomfree c. 1797–1883)