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Art show presents bodies of people of color and LGBT people to show variety of human form

One of Lola Ogbara's illustrations
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
One of Lola Ogbara's illustrations

Much of contemporary media and arts production is dominated by straight, slender, white bodies. A new St. Louis exhibit aims to upset that dynamic and highlight work focused on marginalized body types.

"Bodies on Display" opened this month at Westminster Press on Cherokee Street. It features Krista Valdez's self-portraits, Kat Reynolds' photography, Anya Liao's drawings, and Lola Ogbara's illustrations. Their work examines how LGBT bodies and those of people of color reflect identity, how they are viewed in public spaces — and how those bodies can resist dominant cultural representations of the human form.

"It's hard to come out and say this is normal, this is real, this is how we are, like, accept us," Valdez said. "And I think right now is kind of a huge moment for everybody all over the world to kind of show what it is to be a normal, you know, human being."

The collaboration also combines the artists' political and personal concerns.

Valdez presents a series of mostly nude self portraits shot on a digital camera.  In the past year, she returned to photography, one of her first creative outlets, after three years of studying sculpture.

"I think that's when I started realizing that my body and my actual skin, like actually confronting myself, is the next step," Valdez said.

For Valdez, photography serves as a bridge between her interest in form, learned during her years of working in sculpture, and personal expression. Her images, she said, allow viewers to explore the relationship between "somebody else's perception of what a natural normal body looks like to them, rather than what the media tries to convey as a normal body type."

Self portrait by Krista Valdez
Self portrait by Krista Valdez

Ogbara said people with bodies that aren't embraced by popular media are constantly bombarded by imagery that calls into question their worth as people. She considers it her duty to create imagery that fights against that negativity.

"It's important for me, not just me, but girls who look like me or may not look like me," she said. "They face the same daily battles of constant reminders that if you're not fitting the standards, than what are you doing?  It’s almost like you’re not worthy of anything, even love."

Ogbara sees the works as part of a body positive movement. She realized her own body wasn’t represented in the art she saw hanging in galleries or museums. So the artist began making illustrations to fill that gap. Her images are line drawings capturing female forms in powerful unapologetic postures.  Although the figures are rendered in near-neon, the inescapably bright colors are meant to highlight that the bodies depicted are women of color. The artist intentionally leaves the faces blank so they seem less like individual characters and more like canvases in which viewers can see themselves reflected.

For the artists, the biggest reward is seeing and hearing viewers’ responses to their work — among them "this is my body."

"'This looks like me and I never thought it was beautiful until I saw this image,' like I’ve gotten that before and it's a great feeling," she said. "It's an affirmation for me to continue the conversation."

The show will be open to the public through the beginning of September.

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