A short chronology of junk in the trunk: In 1810, Saartjie Baartman—an African tribal woman with a pronounced derrière—was taken to Great Britain to travel with a peep show, where Brits were permitted to touch her enormous rear for an extra admission fee. In 1992, Sir Mix-a-Lot released “Baby Got Back.” In 2004, Esther Baxter, aka “Miss Freek-a-Leek,” landed her first video modeling gig due to her 34DDD-24-40 measurements. And last year, artist Holly Bass considered these three events and realized that something was very wrong.
“We see so much of this imagery of the booty-shaking woman that we don’t even think about it,” says Bass. “I’m not saying it’s bad. I like to get out on the dance floor and shake what my mamma gave me. But that’s all you see now—it’s out of balance.”
Bass, a performance artist and dancer who lives in Adams Morgan, has a response: the booty ball, a prosthetic butt that she straps on to her body for her stereotype-challenging performances.
“Some are made of basketballs, and some are playground balls, so there’s different levels of bounceability,” says Bass, who uses a rock-climbing harness to attach the balls to her body.
Bass’ latest work, “Pay Purview,” will give people passing by the Transformer Gallery a chance to peep at her fake rump from behind a velvet curtain strung up on the gallery’s window. For 10 cents a peek, she’ll dance to the sounds of show tunes, French jazz, and, of course, Sir Mix-a-Lot. It’s part of Bass’ dance-and-discussion series, “Show and Prove,” as well as Transformer’s feminist-themed exhibit “SASS,” which—in addition to other video works by Bass—also features works by Amanda Douglas, Natalia Fabia, Danniel Swatosh, and local Lisa Marie Thalhammer.
Curator Victoria Reis says the show is not a statement about feminist artists but rather a statement about women artists dealing with feminist issues, and it’s an ideal pairing with the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ present show, “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution.”
“Some of the artists in ‘WACK’ have influenced these artists,” says Reis. “But many of these women were born in the ’80s. Where that show lets off, this one comes in.”
Bass says that she considers herself a feminist artist but does not strive to create overtly feminist work.
“I do what interests me,” she says, “but I don’t think politically first. I dislike work that is very didactic.”
However, dealing with such divisive topics in “Pay Purview” and her previous show, “Uppity Negroes on Parade”—in which the booty balls have also made an appearance—has left Bass open to criticism and controversy.
“People ask me, am I just replaying stereotypes in my work, or am I actually criticizing them?” she says. “The feeling I’m going for is not letting anyone off the hook and thinking about the contradictions that we live with.…If I’m crossing a line, it’s the audience’s job to call me to task.”
With the booty balls, Bass says that audiences have reacted differently.
“They laugh because it’s funny, but some people are disturbed, particularly black women, who think I’m making fun of them,” she says. “I actually have 37-inch hips, but I’m small, so people wonder if I’m doing some sort of booty envy, and I’m like, ‘No, I have one.’”