Black Venus: Reclaiming Black Femininity Exhibition, 20 Jul – 24 Sept 2023, Somerset House
Black Venus is a thought-provoking exhibition which examines the historical representation and shifting legacy of Black women in visual culture. Curated by Aindrea Emelife, the collection brings together the work of over 20 Black women and non-binary artists to explore the othering, fetishisation and reclamation of narratives around Black femininity. The exhibition pairs over 40 contemporary and primarily photographic artworks with archival imagery dated between 1793 to 1930, illustrating historical depictions of Black women and the caricaturing of the Black body.
The exhibition examines the shifting image of the Black woman in visual culture through the influences of three perceived archetypes: the Hottentot Venus, the Sable Venus, and the Jezebel. The presentation of these works invites viewers to confront the enduring oppression and exploitation of Black women and to witness its upheaval in the hands of today’s Black artists.
A Recurrent Archetype in Visual Culture
Black Venus examines the complex lived experience that informs the work of cross-generational women and non-binary artists today. These three thematic pillars are:
The Hottentot Venus
At the centre of the show’s thematic focus are the Hottentot Venus, a recurrent archetype throughout visual culture and the epithet given to Sarah Baartman (Ssehura, b. 1789) who, enslaved by Dutch colonists, was toured as a ‘freak show’ exhibit under this alias. Black Venus contrasts archival depictions of Black women, which typify colonial-era exploitation and commodification of the Black body, with evocative portraiture by some of the most influential contemporary Black image-makers whose work deals with layered narratives of Black femininity.
The Sable Venus
The exhibition also explores Thomas Stothard’s etching, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (c. 1800), and its place in the long-standing eroticisation of the Black woman in visual culture. The sexual objectification of the Black woman is exemplified in the trope of Jezebel, explored in the exhibition through the image of performer and cultural icon Josephine Baker. Black Venus examines Baker’s self-awareness as a tool to challenge racial prejudice, satirising Western audiences’ colonialist sexual fantasies and their narrow understanding of Black beauty.
The exhibition explores the trope of Jezebel, which exemplifies the sexual objectification of the Black woman. The exhibition examines Baker’s self-awareness as a tool to challenge racial prejudice, satirising Western audiences’ colonialist sexual fantasies and their narrow understanding of Black beauty.
Exploring the many faces of Black femininity, the show’s contemporary works offer a riotous affront to a centuries-long dynamic of objectification, showcasing all that Black womanhood can be and has always been.
Ayana V. Jackson’s Anarcha (2017) and Black Rice (2019) offer counter images to the cruel and dehumanising treatment of Black women between antebellum slavery and the present day. With their subjects grounded within a nineteenth-century historical period, the works present the Black woman in repose and control while subverting colonial depictions of the forcibly laboured Black body.
Lorna Simpson’s Photo Booth (2008) questions how we view history, subjectivity and artistic ownership. Simpson’s installation juxtaposes fifty ink drawings with a host of fifty found photographs – each a photobooth self-portrait. The photographs are at once indicative of their 1940s origins, while amorphous illustrations prompt a dislocation from time and context in search of psychological projections from the viewer.
Black Venus Defines a Legacy
Aindrea Emelife, the curator of Black Venus, states, “Rather than simply putting forth a compelling group of contemporary talent, Black Venus defines a legacy. At a time when Black women are finally being allowed to claim agency over how their image is seen, it is important to track how we have reached this moment. In looking through these images, which span different stages of history, we are confronted with a mirror of the political and socio-economic understandings of Black women at the time and how the many faces of Black womanhood continue to shift in the public consciousness.”
The exhibition debuted in 2022 at New York’s Fotografiska and featured a new reworking of the themes with over 19 new works and 6 UK-based artists in the line-up. Black Venus’s presentation at Somerset House follows the opening of its residency at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD).
Black Venus is a powerful exhibition that explores the complex narratives of Black womanhood in visual culture. Through historical depictions and contemporary works, the collection confronts the enduring oppression and exploitation of Black women while showcasing all that Black womanhood can be and has always been. The exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in exploring the intersection of art, history, and culture.
Ticketed admission to Black Venus is Pay What You Can, making it accessible to all. The exhibition opens on 20 July 2023 at Somerset House, London, and runs until 10 September 2023. For more information, go to the Somerset House website
Image: Amber PinkertonPhoto Booth,Sabah, Girls Next Door, 2020,©Courtesy the Artist and Alice Black