With Her Lens and Hip Hop, Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter Centers Black Feminism

For a wrenching new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia-based artist establishes systemic injustice and mass incarceration as long-overlooked cornerstones of the reproductive rights movement.

Still from Ain’t I a Woman. Credit: Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter

In her landmark speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” abolitionist and orator Sojourner Truth spoke to the humanity of Black women at the predominantly white Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Exemplifying the hardships she had endured while enslaved and afterward, Truth rhetorically asked, “Ain’t I woman?” throughout her speech to assert the rights of Black women within the movement. Now, artist-activist Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter brings this fundamental question to the halls of the Brooklyn Museum with a wrenching exhibition that opened in late January.

In a 15-minute documentary, also titled Ain’t I a Woman, the Philadelphia-based artist uses an original hip-hop composition under the name Isis Tha Saviour to underscore the through-lines between mass incarceration and slavery. She recreates the harrowing experience of being shackled and denied medical care during 43 hours of labor as an expectant mother while in prison. Asked by Baxter, the question of “Ain’t I Woman” demands better from a broader reproductive justice movement that has largely ignored the implications of mass incarceration on bodily autonomy.

For the exhibition’s second work, Consecration to Mary, Baxter tries to reclaim bodily autonomy for a young Black girl who was victimized by the widely revered Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins, a known predator. Baxter superimposes her own image over sexually exploitative photographs of the girl, whose identity remains unknown, shielding her body from view. Reckoning with the nature of such works, even with Baxter’s image as protector and guardian, is devastating. “[It’s] an opportunity for Black women to experience what reimagining our personal and collective traumas can do for our healing,” Baxter tells Surface. “We can take ownership over our autonomy in this creative way and it can be across time.” 

In an interview with Surface, Baxter digs into the power of hip hop, holding museums accountable, and using art to demand systemic change from the carceral system.

Installation images from "Ain't I a Woman," at the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

What inspired you to choose hip hop as a way to narrate your experience?

I grew up listening to hip hop and absorbing the music and culture, so it was a very familiar medium for me. In terms of art-making, it’s one that doesn’t really cost. In terms of materiality, it’s just you and the paper. I don’t know any other medium that can tell so much in a such short amount of time. That’s the magic of the art form—it’s a medium enjoyed by people of all classes, races, and religions. It cuts through all the barriers in society that separate us. 

Your exhibition’s opening aligned with the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which was overturned last year. Was that timing deliberate on your part?

It was deliberate on the museum’s part. When they came to me, that was something they were very interested in: expanding this reproductive rights conversation to also incorporate incarcerated women and their barriers to reproductive rights and the injustices that they face. For me, I felt it was very important to open it up a little bit more. 

In thinking about what led to Roe v. Wade and looking at early voluntary motherhood movements, it was important for me to really anchor this in acknowledging that history, and who was and wasn’t invited to be a part of that. Early feminism was a racist movement because it obscured and ignored these other women. Of course, this was a time of scientific racism, saying “These are animals, not people.” Theologians, scientists, judges, government officials—everyone was conspiring with this one narrative around this particular demographic of people to justify their subjugation. Early feminist movements are no different.

Do you think strides have been made to rectify this, to incorporate the experiences of Black women into this conversation about reproductive rights?

Without Black women, feminism would not exist as it does today and have the intersectionality lens. So I’m very clear on Black women’s involvement, but the erasure still continues. The fact that institutions aren’t thinking about first- and second-wave feminists and sterilization is also a part of it. It’s not just about abortion, which I feel is something that folks are now more receptive to. That’s one thing I’m grateful for with the Brooklyn Museum—[curator] Catherine Morris was very receptive to what I had to say and offer.

Reproductive rights means not only the ability to terminate a pregnancy—it’s also the ability to have children and not have them subjected to premature death due to systemic oppression, and all these other variables. For me, mass incarceration is a reproductive justice issue for Black people.

How do you feel your exhibition fits into disrupting this history of systemically excluding perspectives of Black women and people impacted by the carceral system from these conversations and platforms?

It’s a starting point. That’s another issue I have in the museum world: this constant focus on dialogue and conversation. I think we’re way past the conversation. I mean, it’s good, but to what end? What is the commitment? Is it “good” because it’s a popular thing to do, and you want to insert yourself and be relevant? Is it “good” because you really want to uproot some of these practices the museum is rooted in? When we think about museums, their actual function, what is it? It’s a place to parade your conquered people’s cultural treasures, right? I’m not impressed, but I’m happy if I can be the one that gets it poppin’. It’s a start, but there’s much more to be done.

Still from Ain’t I a Woman. Credit: Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter

What does “much more” mean to you? What would you like to see?

Well, I have an active fight for accountability right now with a museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). Through the online database of their collection, I found some of the first instances of child pornography and they have yet to formally apologize for those extremely hurtful and dehumanizing photos. They have yet to denounce the predatory legacy of the person who took them.

You’re speaking of Thomas Eakins, and his photographs that you edited to create Consecration to Mary. You superimpose your own image over the little girl in the photographs to protect her. 

Yes. I was actually working in the home where these photographs were taken, where the actual abuse took place. I had a similar experience in terms of childhood sexual abuse, so naturally I felt triggered but also felt a very real responsibility to speak out and hold the museum accountable. However, I had to write an op-ed before they made a public statement even addressing this because originally they tried to delete the photographs and make it go away. 

Childhood sexual abuse is shrouded in secrecy, darkness, and shame. The violence they further enacted on this girl—by purchasing these photos, putting them in an online database, and keeping them there after Saidiya Hartman explained their nature in her book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval—that exhibits a blatant unwillingness to reckon with archives of violence. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts has a duty to address the harms perpetuated by Eakins as well their participation in the dissemination of sexually explicit photographs of children.

PAFA went on record with the Art Newspaper when I was doing the initial petition for repatriation of the photos and getting community support. The museum said they were going to issue a formal apology and commit to include a full account of this history in academic materials. They said they were going to offer a robust program to address this in the wider community. They never did. However, they had a closed-door program explicitly for students. They even used my op-ed and my artwork as their teaching tools and didn’t invite me. Afterwards, it all just went away. 

'Consecration to Mary'; credit: Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter.

Tell me about creating Consecration to Mary in the aftermath of discovering these photographs. 

I downloaded the photographs, created the artwork, and met with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts a few months after. At that meeting, they felt comfortable selling me the photographs. Selling them? It’s insane how the art world is able to protect these people because it’s wrongly considered art. For me, this is a known sexual predator so it can’t be art. This is an overtly sexual pose. It needs to be addressed because these photographs have real consequences in the present, in our psyche, in an internal way but also the way society ignores Black women’s pain and thinks Black girls can’t be children. We think about adultification bias and how it affects Black children—as young as five years old, you’re thought to know more about sex, need less nurturing, protection, care, you’re hyper-criminalized… So yeah, I’m not impressed by what museums are doing.

Of course not. Let’s talk about your work with Dignity Act Now Collective (DANC) and how you’re using art and activism to demand systemic change from the carceral system.

One reason why I co-founded DANC was because I saw this connection between art and activism. We wanted to root the organization in this and leverage our art to talk about these issues. Also, in Philadelphia, I don’t think there was any other Black femme, non-binary trans-led organization doing this work. It was a lot of outsiders, people not from the community, people who haven’t had these experiences or even been incarcerated, that were speaking for this demographic. That was the main impetus for creating the collective—to take control of our own voices. 

There’s an economy in this, where people create livelihoods from doing these projects to help incarcerated people. A Faith Ringgold painting recently went to the Brooklyn Museum, and I’m going to Rikers Island to do a similar collaborative project with participants there. But for me, the Department of Corrections owning Faith Ringgold’s painting is insane. This project was co-created with people incarcerated there, so they should have equity in this work. The painting is worth four or five million dollars. If they had equity, how could their lives be transformed with those resources? That’s one thing I’m assuring in my collaborative projects: these folks have some equity.


If you or someone you know has been affected by inappropriate sexual behavior, we encourage you to reach out for support.

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