The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, U.S.A., is presenting the exhibition Black Venus – Group Show through August 20, 2023. The exhibition highlights the legacy of black women in visual culture, from colonial-era fetishized caricatures to contemporary works by more than 20 artists such as Sadie Barnette, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems, who reclaim the rich complexity of black womanhood. Nigerian-British curator and art historian Aindrea Emelife organized this exhibition, which examines the representation of Black women in visual culture. The more than 45 contemporary works on view are juxtaposed with archival representations from 1793 to create a comprehensive and transgenerational investigation of Black women’s reclaiming of power amidst the historical fetishization of the Black woman’s body.
The exhibition features primarily photographic works, but also sculpture, mixed media, and film. It was originally created for Fotografiska in New York and was first shown in 2022. The exhibition has been expanded and updated for Bay Area audiences with the addition of several local artists and pieces from local collections. It will then be presented at Somerset House in London.
The thematic foundation of the exhibition is the Hottentot Venus, a visual culture archetype named after the stage name assigned to Saartje Baartman. Enslaved by Dutch colonizers and presented in Europe as part of a freak show due to her non-Western morphology, her caricatured representations spread around the world and indelibly catalyzed the West’s exoticization and alienation of black women. In Black Venus, archival images of Baartman and other historical Black women are paired with vivid, narrative portraits by some of today’s most influential Black image makers, whose work focuses on layered narratives of Black womanhood.
Renee Cox, one of the artists on view, explores the exhibition’s titular inspiration by posing as the Hottentot Venus, but looking directly at the viewer rather than adopting the non-confrontational sideways profile of historical representations. By forcing the viewer to meet her gaze, Cox empowers Baartman in her work HOTT-EN-TOT (1993-1994) by interrupting the age-old power dynamic of objectifying the gaze upon her.
In sum, Black Venus – Group Show is an exhibition that examines the representation of black women in visual culture from the colonial era to contemporary works.