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Another key figure that is featured in the exhibition is the goddess Venus, but not in the way you think… My up-bringing as a traditional art historian was very Eurocentric art history and it was there that I learned about The Venus by Botticelli. And so when I came across The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West etching by Thomas Stothard made in 1793, which very obviously replaces the central figure of Venus as a Black woman, I found that it was such a beautiful combination of what we perceive it to be coming together. Traditionally, Venus is porcelain, squats with her hair toppling down and is angelic. These tropes continually reaffirm the way that she has been seen for so long. So by replacing that character with what was then seen as a slave, not only was it obviously popularizing the idea of slavery at the time or at least romanticizing and glamorizing it, but it was also showing a fantasization, inaccurate, and heavily whitewashed view of the Black woman and Black Venus. After I looked at Stothard’s image, I started to research just that: the concept of Black Venus. I found out that Jeanne Duval, who was Baudelaire’s mistress, was called the Black Venus, as was Josephine Baker. So I guess that this became one of the other really fascinating pillars, because it drummed in the idea that being called Venus is to represent the archetypal European sense of beauty and to introduce blackness would, in many people’s minds, contradict that. This show’s aim is to prove that there shouldn’t be a contradiction and that the Black Venus exists and it has always existed. It also shows that Black beauty and Black womanhood has been much bigger and expansive than the way that history, art history, or photographic history has made us believe.
How did the contemporary artists that you selected incorporate the idea of Black Venus and Black womanhood? And how did you make the selection of artists? There were a couple of key artists that I really, really wanted to be in the show. Carrie Mae Weems was one of them because I felt that her entire body of work looks at criticizing or understanding how the Black woman has assisted history. Her work featured in the show, Not Manet’s Type, is quite literally looking at the European idea of who gets to be painted as beautiful in paintings and who is excluded. There are several interesting captions that accompany these images that narrate and question the idea that if you’re not Manet’s type then you’re not the European ideal of beauty. People sought their beauty ideals from art history, and that has been at the back [of most images]. These ideals lingers on in the way that beauty has been perceived and developed. Because of this I wholeheartedly wanted to include Carrie Mae Weems’ work.
Josephine Baker (1905-1975) was also really important to me, because she is known as “one of the most iconic representations of Black female sexuality”.When I started to think about the Black woman as entertainment and how she is perceived and seen in history, I felt that Josephine Baker was very interesting because she played to the way that Europeans saw Black women. Whether it was something to fear because of their sexuality, or something to be gawked at, Baker almost caricatured that gaze like she was making fun of the idea that people could see Black women in such a limited way by pushing it to its most extreme. There is a really interesting photograph in the exhibition depicting Baker partying hard, and she’s crossing her eyes and is wearing even darker makeup on her skin. It’s almost as if she’s playing to the most extreme idea of what blackness can be. I think that she’s very intriguing, because when we think about contemporary culture and women in hip hop, like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B., and Lil Kim, who also perform their own identity and sexuality on their own terms, I think it is important to look to figures like Josephine Baker, who really pushed the boundaries and the extreme of how Black women were perceived to the very core. Furthermore, when watching Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda video, when she’s shaking her buttocks to the beat in the jungle, I thought that it was such an interesting feature about how people really thought what Black women were like, what they were, and how they were living their lives. Therefore, looking at the Black woman as entertainment is definitely one of the things that I feel Josephine Baker represents.
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