“Black models” in visual culture and modern arts

The Mémorial ACTe (Centre caribéen d’expressions et de mémoire de la Traite et de l’Esclavage) in Guadeloupe is hosting until December 2019 a jointly curated exhibition previously held at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (October 2018 to February 2019, see C200.a.5469) and at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Le Modèle noir, de Géricault à Matisse (March to July 2019, see S950.b.201.5919). The Memorial to slavery, opened in 2015, which is also a cultural centre and museum, seems an appropriate venue for this exhibition, which focuses on “the representation of the black figure in the development of modern art”.

The exhibition examines the models’ relations with “painters, sculptors and photographers” through archival photographs, correspondence and films. Exploring the connections between history of art and history of ideas, the exhibition studies aesthetic, political, social and racial issues as well as the role of imagination in “the representation of black figures in visual arts from the French and American abolition eras to the present day” (it goes beyond the usual remit of the Musée d’Orsay collections, which span 1848-1914).

These exhibitions and related scholarship are part of a growing body of research encompassing aesthetic but also cultural, historical and social issues associated with the depiction and “invention” of “black” bodies and people through the denigrating / fascinated Western gaze, such as the books published in 2019 by Anne Lafont, L’art et la race: l’Africain (tout) contre l’oeil des Lumières (Presses du réel, C215.c.5579) and Une Africaine au Louvre en 1800: la place du modèle (Institut national d’histoire de l’art, C206.d.1365).

The French publications join a large corpus of recent English language books in the field, often written from a historical perspective, such as Migrating the Black body : the African diaspora and visual culture, 2018, (ebook); The black figure in the European imaginary, resulting from an exhibition organized by the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Florida in 2017 (2019.12.57) or Visualizing Blackness and the Creation of the African American Literary Tradition by Lena Hill, 2014 (730:35.c.201.296). A wider cultural scope appears in The image of the Black in African and Asian art, 2018 (S950.a.201.5379).

These recent publications examine the interplay between external and self-representations of black people in arts, historical and modern, such as ReSignifications: European blackamoors, Africana readings, 2016 (S950.a.201.5075), published after the exhibition organised at the Museo Stefano Bardini, the Villa La Pietra, and the Fondazione Biagiotti Progetto Arte, in Florence, which combines catalogue and conference proceedingsKerry James Marshall : look see, 2015 (S950.a.201.4357), “conflates actual and imagined events from African-American history, integrating a range of stylistic influences to address the limited historiography of black art”.

In the US context, Art for people’s sake: artists and community in Black Chicago, 1965-75 by Rebecca Zorach, 2019 (ebookdemonstrates the crucial role of aesthetics and artistic practice in the mobilization of Black radical politics during the Black Power era”. To describe a life : notes from the intersection of art and race terror by Darby English, 2019 (400:05.b.201.41) highlights how contemporary creations deal with burning political and racial issues.

Some of the publications focusing on graphic arts look specifically at the use of caricature: Africans in English caricature 1769-1819 : black jokes white humour by Temi Odumosu, 2017 (S950.b.201.4338) and Afrografías : representaciones gráficas y caricaturescas de los afrodescendientes by Óscar Perdomo Gamboa, 2017 (C214.c.1846). Many more publications examine the representations of black subjects in the field of film studies.

The topic is very much of interest in the Hispanic world, especially in South America and in Brazil, with publications such as “Mulatas” e negras pintadas por brancas : questões de etnia e gênero presentes na pintura modernista brasileira by Marcos Hill, 2017 (C215.c.986). Many are also related to exhibitions, such as Histórias afro-atlânticas = Afro-Atlantic histories, held at Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 2018, which led to the publication of a catalogue and an anthology (S950.b.201.5922-5923), was conceived as a sequel to the Histórias Mestiças exhibition at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, Pinheiros (Brazil) in 2014, or Pedro Figari:  nostalgias africanas, 2018 (S950.201.5924), after the exhibition organised at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales and the Museo Figari in Montevideo (Uruguay).

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi

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