The Fotografiska New York exhibition features the works of artists like Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and more.
Mickalene Thomas, Ain’t I a Woman, 2009. Video (color, sound; 3:33 min.), and rhinestone, acrylic and enamel on panel. Dimensions: Panel: 36 x 28" (91.4 x 71.1 cm) Framed Monitor: 17 3/4 x 24 x 5 3/8 in.
Tracing the history of Black womanhood and investigating the many modes of representation we’ve existed in through visual culture is a task that requires vigilance, care, and inherent understanding, both from a present standpoint and retrospectively. “Black Venus,” a new exhibition at Fotografiska New York, demonstrates this beautifully through the works of several artists, all of whom illustrate the legacy of the Black woman with individual agency and talent.
The exhibition, created by British Nigerian curator Aindrea Emelife, draws upon references from the past that have influenced toxic Western perception of the Black female body, such as colonial-era fetishizations and exoticisation.
“The idea for ‘Black Venus’ had been rumbling in my head for years, possibly decades, as my mother told me the story of the Hottentot Venus”—Sara Baartman, a South African woman who was exoticized and fetishized as a tourist attraction traveling around Europe—“aged around seven or eight,” Emelife says. “The show is in many ways an autobiography of all the Black women I’ve met and have yet to meet, as well as a love letter to a community that is so often told we’re ‘too much.’ I thought this was urgent.”
The show features works by some of the most influential Black women in contemporary art, including Renee Cox, Coreen Simpson, Deana Lawson, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, and Ming Smith. Cox’s reimagining of Baartman, titled Hot-en-Tot, is particularly powerful, as it reclaims ownership of the Black female body by covering areas that were exploited by the white male gaze in the original painting.
“The most compelling part about Hottentot was finding out her history and how she was shown as a freak on display throughout Europe. When she died, that wasn’t enough to stop the tomfoolery, as she was then dissected and presented in a vat of formaldehyde, also toured throughout Europe, until Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa and was able to reclaim her body parts from France to give her a proper burial,” Cox explains. “Knowing that history, and then finding myself, one day, in a Halloween costume store and seeing these big Black plastic breasts and buttocks, I knew at that moment that I had found the proper accouterments in producing my piece.”
Miss Thang—inspired by the “Black bougie housewife”—is another one of Cox’s contemporary artworks to be featured in the exhibition; it originates from a separate body of work she created during a self-proclaimed midlife crisis. “I felt I needed to create a visual representation of a Black middle-aged woman who was suffering from anxiety or clinical depression like Valley of the Dolls,” she says. “I wanted to do it in a visually dignified manner, because the images that populate the worlds of such things are usually of Black women looking very crusty and downtrodden.”