Patterns: Visual artist Alicia Henry challenges conventions of femininity

Mixed media assemblage of clothes for a young black woman
“Untitled” by Alicia Henry, mixed media, 2 feet by 3 feet

Paper dolls have long been used to emphasize cultural norms regarding femininity and beauty. As often happens, childhood play subtly reinforces society’s notions of the “ideal.” Once these playthings are cast off and one enters adulthood, these romanticized notions should fall out of our conscience as easily as clothes from paper dolls. Yet, somehow, they don’t.

The work of contemporary artist Alicia Henry brings to mind paper dolls of a larger, life-sized sort. Her exhibit, Patterns, sponsored by Vanderbilt’s Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program, in association with the Kelly Miller Smith Institute for Black Church Studies, explores and challenges definitions of femininity and female subjectivity. Henry’s figurative constructions of paper, fabric and paint are flat yet evoke a sense of three dimensions, as though these particular clothes and masks were ripped from living, breathing people. They face the viewer with the invitation to try them on to see a different world and a different perspective.

A meditation on the exhibit will be held Feb. 27 from noon to 12:30 p.m. Henry, an associate professor of art at Fisk University and the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and grants, also presented a lecture on her work Feb. 11. Patterns will be on exhibit through March 15 in the Divinity Art Room (G-20) as part of the Divinity School’s observance and celebration of Black History Month.