This exhibition at Somerset House, brilliantly curated by Aindrea Emelife, challenges that stereotype by showing us both how black women have been depicted in Western history alongside the contemporary artists who are challenging these stereotypes and showing us that the black body is beautiful.
The show draws our attention to the story of Saartjie Baartman, who was at the time referred to as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, a black woman who was exhibited across UK and Ireland and subjected to scientific study. This objectification of a black female body is challenged by works such as Renee Cox’s photographic self-portrait where she dons prostheses to exaggerate her breasts and bottom, but stares directly at the viewer reclaiming her agency.
Similarly we see a reproduction of a Thomas Stothard engraving showing a black Venus accompanied by the sea god Triton and cherubs being taken across the waves under a British flag, which was used as propaganda to promote the transatlantic slave trade. It’s a horrific depiction, while in contrast we see Delphie Diallo’s poised contemporary sitter wearing a bright blue mask in a pose that reminds us of Queen Nefertiti. It’s this stark contrast, visible throughout the show, which ensures the powerful message of celebrating black women never leaves a visitor’s thoughts.
Other highlights include Zanele Muholi’s photographs where they cast themselves in full pageant costume proudly wearing a banner declaring ‘black lesbian’ and Lorna Simpson’s ‘photo booth’ of 100 pocket-sized photographs and drawings of black men, which contains one black woman with her hair tied back who was assumed to be a man.
The horrific legacy of colonialism and slavery can still be felt today in the ugly stereotypes around black women that are often heard. This excellent exhibition cannot undo that but it does a great job of addressing it and offering us an alternative that recognises black beauty and gives agency back to black womxn.
All images ©Tim Bowditch.
|What||Black Venus, Somerset House, review|
|Where||Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Temple (underground)|
20 Jul 23 – 24 Sep 23, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|