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Inside the “Black Venus” exhibit at Fotografiska New York

Tracing the history of black femininity and investigating the many modes of representation in which we have existed through visual culture is a task that requires vigilance, care and inherent understanding, both from a present and retrospective perspective. . “Black Venus,” a new exhibition at Fotografiska New York, demonstrates this beautifully through the works of several artists, all of whom exemplify the heritage of black women with individual agency and talent.

The exhibition, created by British Nigerian curator Aindrea Emelife, draws on references from the past that influenced the toxic Western perception of the black female body, such as colonial-era fetishizations and exoticism. “The idea of ​​’Black Venus’ had been rumbling in my head for years, maybe decades, as my mother told me the story of the Hottentot Venus” – Sara Baartman, a South African woman who was exotic and fetishized as a tourist attraction traveling around Europe – “about seven or eight years old”, says Emelife. “The show is in many ways an autobiography of all the black women I have met and yet to meet, as well as a love letter to a community that is so often told we are “too”. I thought it was urgent.”

The exhibition 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 of Hottentot was learning about her story and how she was presented as a monster on display throughout Europe. When she died, that wasn’t enough to stop the stupidity, as she was then dissected and presented in a vat of formaldehyde, also toured Europe, until Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa and be able to collect his body parts from France to give him a proper burial,” says Cox. “Knowing this story, then finding myself, one day, in a Halloween costume shop and seeing these big black plastic breasts and buttocks, I knew at that moment that I had found the appropriate accessories to produce my place.”

Hot-en-Tot by Renee Cox.

Renee Cox

Miss Thang—inspired by the ‘Black Candle Housewife’ – is another of Cox’s contemporary artworks to be featured in the exhibition; it comes from a separate body of work she created during a self-proclaimed midlife crisis. “I felt I had to create a visual representation of a middle-aged black woman who was suffering from clinical anxiety or depression like Valley of the Dolls,she says. “I wanted to do it in a visually dignified way, because the images that populate the worlds of such things are usually very crispy looking, downtrodden black women.”

renee cox black venus artist
Miss Thang by Renee Cox.

Renee Cox

Elsewhere, “Black Venus” celebrates iconic performer Josephine Baker and challenges the sexualization of black women through the modern work of Ming Smith, while photographer Coreen Simpson, whose career dates back to the late ’70s, presents a powerful series of masked nudes, centering a sense of control and ownership for his subjects. “When I looked at nudes in the history of photography, I noticed that the greats never focused on the faces of their subjects. The body was the focus,” she explains. “ I had a few masks from my travels and thought about putting one on my model. I think masks add mystery to the subject, and as the great fashion designer Coco Chanel once said, “We replace age with mystery.” I say every woman, at any age, should have a little mystery.

This is a love letter to a community that is so often told we are “too much”.

With each piece, “Black Venus” not only champions the mystery of black women in all of our forms, but also the power, magic, and resilience we possess, just as much as it focuses on our sweetness and grace. “I want this exhibition to highlight the extent of black femininity. We can’t treat it as a monolith – it was key in selecting artists, who vary in generation, include non-binary voices and have an international reach,” says Emelife.

It also tries to right a historic wrong. “I hope this also highlights the deliberate erasure of black women from art history and history. While browsing the show, many expressed the need for shows like this, and their historical absence. I was deeply inspired by ‘The Model Noir,” the groundbreaking work Denise Murrell did for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, radically renaming artworks featuring black women, which now refer to their real names. Thelma Golden’s iconic “Black Male” exhibit shed light on how black masculinity is perceived in America. I hope this show does something similar for how black women are viewed around the world.

black venus exposure
Untitled (2014) by Kara Walker.

Kara Walker

zanele muholi
miss lesbian i (2009) by Zanele Muholi.

Zanele Muholi

Agency is another key theme throughout the exhibition, and it sets the tone for the future of art, even more so with the rise of NFTs. “For a very long time, artists were not truly masters of the fate of their art, the works are mostly in the hands of a few galleries and collectors,” says Cox. “With the advent of blockchain technology, artists are starting to be in a more powerful place by cutting out the middlemen, and the industry will become much more transparent as a result.”

This sense of ownership over yourself is equally crucial in dismantling societal views and perceptions of black women and the black female body – a movement we see not only in the art world, but across the transformation of women in pop culture, among other areas.

“Having control over how we are perceived is vital. For so long, black women have been trapped by stereotypes and practical imaginations,” Emelife points out. “That’s why I focused on the black woman, as captured by black women and non-binary photographers and artists. I wanted to imagine a space where black women control the narrative and dig into the story to If we think of the “music video vixens” of the 90s, for example, and the rise of artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B and the City Girls, who now reinforce black women’s sexuality, it was [once] acceptable only when marketed as an accessory or when considered an extreme. Once the agency is recovered, the potential can be realized.

Tickets for “Black Venus” at Fotografiska New York are available for purchase here.

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