The Ten Commandments of Renée Cox

Renée Cox (born 1960, Colgate, Jamaica; active New York, NY), Young Yo Mama, 1980, from the series Yo Mama. Inkjet print mounted on aluminum, 101.6 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy KODA, New York. © Renée CoxRenée Cox, born in 1960 in Colgate, Jamaica, has been empowering Black people through her work for more than four decades. The Ten Commandments of Renée Cox, the artist’s first career-spanning museum exhibition, explores themes of motherhood, liberation, isolation, self-realization, and joy. From her first self-portrait in 1980 to her most recent work, Cox investigates sexism, the dehumanizing commodification of the Black body, gender fluidity, and the power of Afrofuturism—the promise of a richly imagined potential in the African Diaspora.

Cox’s earliest self-portrait, Young Yo Mama (1980), shows self-love as a Black woman, a through line in the artist’s work. In this piece, she portrays herself as a young rebel in disguise. Cox lived through and participated in the Black liberation movement in the United States. Later, when studying art in Florence, Italy, she noticed a lack of Black representation in the world’s dominant art history. In the 1980s, Cox’s photographic work was mainly commercial, fashion, and editorial, and she made a strong contribution to showcasing Black people in their beauty. Questioning the capitalist and patriarchal structures that led to the transatlantic slave trade, contemporaneous with the work of such thinkers as bell hooks and Greg Tate, Cox began to create works that invite healthy discourse around critical race theory and identity politics. Through her practice over the past three decades, she has preached about self-love as a weapon against white supremacy, systemic racism, and neocolonialism.

Renée Cox, The Beached, 1993, printed 2023, from the series Yo Mama. Inkjet print mounted on aluminum, 101.6 × 121.1 cm. Courtesy KODA, New York. © Renée CoxThe Yo Mama Series

In her monumental self-portraiture, Cox unmasks the complexity and evolution of the self. She commands: “thou shalt not” wait for the world to validate you. Peace and serenity manifest in the careful consideration Cox gives to the Black female body that is her own. Two additional works from the series Yo Mama, The Beached (1993) and Yo Mama at Home (1993), offer a refuge and the feeling of safety a mother provides. Much of Cox’s work is inspired by the civil rights movement and the transformations she experienced growing up. As a woman and a mother, she takes matters into her own hands, protecting—as when she portrays herself as the Virgin Mary or when she holds a naked male body on her lap in Yo Mama’s Pieta (1994). That work is one of the artist’s ongoing responses to the lynching of Black men through gun and police violence. Who is Yo Mama? She is your mother. She is the Virgin Mary. She is Jesus. She is Rajé. She is Chillin with Liberty (1998). She is Queen Nanny of the Maroons, and the Mother of Us All (2004). She is Renée Cox. She embodies the artist’s alter egos. She empowers.

Renée Cox, Black Panther Last Supper, 1993, printed 2023, from the series Yo Mama. Five inkjet prints mounted on aluminum, 91.4 × 73.7 cm each. Courtesy KODA, New York. © Renée Cox

Flippin’ the Script: Black Panther Last Supper

In the 1990s Cox extended her autoethnographic journey in the series Flippin’ the Script, embedding the continually erased Black lived experience in often historically coded scenes. In these works the artist reinterprets well-known European religious art to include Black people. She says, “Christianity is big in the African American community, but there are no representations of us. I took it upon myself to include people of color in these classic scenarios.” Black Panther Last Supper (1993), modeled after Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (ca. 1495–98), was Cox’s first intervention in religious imagery. The work was made during Cox’s time in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1992–93, and many of her friends from the program appear in the photograph—acting surprised. What could be the reason? Is it the anticipated betrayal or the fact that Jesus is a woman, wears an Afro, and is a Black Panther?

When Cox first created Black Panther Last Supper, she saw it as too radical to exhibit. She then created the widely derided, yet critically acclaimed, Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996). There Jesus is also a Black woman but this time nude. Cox often notes, “It was easier to be naked,” as it removed the layer of class and the symbolism of clothing from the narrative.

Black Panther Last Supper features the artist’s signature gaze: she looks directly at the viewer. This oppositional gaze, as defined by the writer and educator bell hooks, or primary gaze, as preferred by Cox, is a form of power. Returning the gaze—long an act of rebellion and resistance against the racially dehumanizing commodification of a Black human, particularly during the era of slavery in the United States—is a way to regain power and counter colonial narratives. Cox fearlessly refuses to look down and continues to imagine, represent, and build a world without racial inequity.

Renée Cox, The Enlightenment, 2013, printed 2023, from the series The Discreet Charm of the Bougies. Inkjet print, 101.6 × 152.4 cm. Courtesy KODA, New York. © Renée Cox The Ten Commandments of Renée Cox

Cox received a Catholic education early in life, which has led her to consider religion a way to control the masses. For herself, she chooses spirituality as something that can get people to leave their heads and connect with one another on a human level, inspiring trust and community building, especially among Black people. Remembering she was taught that “we were all created in the likeness of God or Jesus,” she inserts herself into Eurocentric historical narratives through her multidisciplinary self-portraiture. With The Ten Commandments of Renée Cox, the artist flips the script once more to exhibit her Black Panther–inspired Last Supper for the first time—thirty years after the work was created.

Active on social media, Cox posted photos of Black Panther Last Supper once, on February 27, 2020. That was when I saw the work for the first time, just before the pandemic and before the murder of George Floyd. I was committed to including the work in The Ten Commandments of Renée Cox, so we dug deep into the archives to find the negatives for what I consider to be one of Cox’s most important artworks, drawing together key threads of Black revolutionary history, Black representation in art and spiritual history, and self-love.

When I met Renée Cox, in 2018, I mentioned I was working on starting a nonprofit, KODA, and asked if she would be interested in working on an exhibition together, to which she replied: “Sure. Call me when you get your shit together.”

Klaudia Ofwona Draber
Executive director of KODA, a nonprofit social practice residency for midcareer artists

The Ten Commandments of Renée Cox is curated by Klaudia Ofwona Draber and organized by KODA in partnership with the Princeton University Art Museum.

Art on Hulfish is made possible by the leadership support of Annette Merle-Smith and Princeton University. Generous support is also provided by William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; Julie and Kevin Callaghan, Class of 1983; Annie Robinson Woods, Class of 1988; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; Tom Tuttle, Class of 1988, and Mila Tuttle; the Len & Laura Berlik Foundation; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; and Palmer Square Management. Additional support for The Ten Commandments of Renée Cox is provided by the Department of African American Studies and the Effron Center for the Study of America.