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The black female body: Representation of the erotic in contemporary visual art in Africa

Tayler FRIAR


La politique sexuelle du corps noir et son interaction avec le corps féminin érotisé dans l’art africain sont des sujets encore étonnamment peu étudiés dans la recherche africaine (africaine et non « africaniste », pour reprendre la distinction de Jones dans “African Scholarship, Eurocentricism and the Politics of Knowledge”). Ce manque est étrange étant donné le nombre grandissant d’artistes africains contemporains qui utilisent l’imagerie érotique générée par le racisme scientifique du XVIIIe siècle, et sa perpétuation dans les structures épistémiques de certaines institutions — comme les musées — les siècles suivants. Une icône telle que Sarah Baartman, la Sud-Africaine khoikhoi montrée dans les freak shows européens au début des années 1800, est un exemple poignant de ces images qui représentent le spectacle du dénigrement du corps noirs féminin — des images qui nous hantent. Par ailleurs, le canon artistique a historiquement donné à voir le corps de la femme noire comme grotesque, animalisant, systématiquement soumis, ou fétichisé. Cependant, à travers l’œuvre d’art, ce corps qui était jadis jugé disgracieux est devenu un appel aux armes, suggérant que plutôt que de perpétrer une forme de victimisation, les femmes noires brandissent le corps « érotique » comme une arme de résistance. À travers la performance, le spectacle vivant et la peinture, les artistes africaines s’emparent des thèmes de l’érotisme et de la sexualité qui sont inextricablement liés à la violence historique et au traumatisme. Cet article entend interroger l’utilisation de l’érotique comme mécanisme pour se frayer un chemin à travers le terrain complexe des identités postcoloniales, du pouvoir et du « poids » historique permanent de l’archive coloniale. Pour y parvenir, il présentera plusieurs des arguments fondamentaux des interrogations féministes noires autour du corps, dont une réflexion sur la politique du corps et la réécriture du genre dans le paradigme colonial. À travers l’analyse des œuvres de deux artistes majeures — les Sud-Africaines Tracey Rose et Lady Skollie — l’autrice synthétise plusieurs représentations de l’érotique et les façons dont il s’implique dans les problématiques historiques et la réappropriation du corps féminin. Prenant Baartman comme symbole et comme guide, cet article avance que, contrairement à son statut précédent, limité à un cliché excessivement policé, le corps noir féminin est chargé d’un pouvoir artistique qui explose, déborde, et subvertit le récit historique, prouvant qu’il est un archétype en constante évolution dans l’art visuel contemporain.

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1The black female body has long been a distinct site of transgression and deference for outsiders — Europeans, especially (Mutu in Willis 2). Often reduced to a mere sum of her parts, these extensive records of oppression are characterized by roots in what gender study scholars like Hobson describe as “a history of enslavement, colonial conquest and ethnographic exhibition” (87). The odious treatment of the black female body cannot be localized to one period of time or one offender, but according to Foutz, has a particularly long history of scrutiny under the European imagination as early as the 16th Century (5). Within the European context, the black female form has been associated with many destructive stereotypes, claiming her to be sexually deviant, primitive, subhuman, hypersexual, an uncontrollably erotic creature; all under the often-perverse white male gaze (Ruiz 1). Coppola adds that over time, this same body has been ripped from its autonomy, purged from intellectual spaces, and exposed raw as a ‘bizarre’ public spectacle (25).

2History illuminates the journey of the black woman, whose physique has been beaten, broken, stolen, and shamed while simultaneously glorified through fixed stereotypes that control and limit how she exists in society. African women artists have turned to what I refer to as the violent colonial archive of the black female body to critique these stereotypes, specifically interrogating the erotic archetype. In doing so they produce artwork that frames the erotic body either as a mechanism of power or as a form of (dis)empowerment.

3A number of contemporary African female artists are engaging with themes of eroticism and sexuality as inextricably entangled with historical trauma through various mediums. In painting, for example, South African artists like Lady Skollie, represent the body – as a whole and its isolated female parts – to challenge black gender politics and to repackage how sexual desire is perceived. At times using fruits to connote female genitalia, she evokes the unsettling racist tropes through which the black female body was constructed as consumable (Gbadamosi i). Within this symbolism, her paintings draw comparisons to the colonial archives and history of physical mistreatment black women have endured. She states: “Whether it’s about abuse, whether it’s about porn stars... colonization and how that’s affected black women… I think all of those elements of sex are important and worth looking into” (1). In addition, the work of the South African artist Tracey Rose includes a combination of multi-media installations, photography, and video, usually with her own body as the focal point, and explores cultural stereotypes associated with the black female body (Lewis 204). In her work, she is critical of the objectification of the black female form, often taking advantage of feminine archetypes to expose labels used to discriminate against black women. Such work across an assortment of artistic disciplines has been received with varying levels of enthusiasm or rejection both domestically and on the international stage.

Lust Politics, Lady Skollie, 2017

Lust Politics, Lady Skollie, 2017

Tyburn Gallery London ©
Courtesy of Lady Skollie

  • 1 The emerging trend in contemporary African art to represent the erotic and further conceptualize th (...)

4As this brief discussion suggests, this article aims to interrogate the use of the erotic as a mechanism to navigate the complex terrain of post-colonial identities, power, and the abiding historical ‘weight’ of the colonial archive. To this end, the essay opens by offering an overview on body politics to contextualize the black erotic body as it relates to the colonial paradigm. Second, I will summarize how modern scholarship is revisiting historical content to integrate more gender representation when it comes to the black female form. Third, the article will engage briefly with the history of Sara Baartman, whose well-known narrative has become a cornerstone of inspiration for many African women artists that engage with archetypes of the black body. With an emphasis on hypervisibility, it will discuss how the physical body of Baartman acts as a vessel of memory and an active symbol for millions of unaccounted enslaved black women. Finally, I consider the role of two South African women artists — Tracey Rose and Lady Skollie — who work to reframe how the black female body is represented, exploring this ideological struggle in which the erotic symbolizes both sides of the battle lines.1

1. Body politics and the erotic

5The term ‘sexual politics’ has been widely adopted as an essential term in the last century. Particularly in academia, it is used to characterize how life in a patriarchal world has created biased structures that use sex as a primary influencer in all political questions. Kate Millett (20) breaks down this process using feminist theory, advocating that the use of sexual stereotypes — in her case, she uses classic American and European male novelists to demonstrate the deliberate ways in which male dominion is exercised through literature — continues to degrade women and negates efforts towards a more gender-equal world.

6Along with Millett (2016), Aggleton (2009) and Jagger (2008) also discuss sexual politics and are widely considered important contributors to the feminist movement because of their visionary agenda on gender equity. The three authors weave a common thread to highlight political trends such as heterosexual dominance and its effect on the women’s movement and sex/gender hierarchy as a cause of sex/gender oppression (Aggleton 2009).

7However, the nature of sexual politics becomes significantly more intricate and layered when one considers overlapping issues of race, class, or gender. As black feminist scholarship works to unpack complex histories associated with the black female body, it has become clear that an examination of black sexual politics is worthy of further investigation. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins set the stage as the pioneer academic focusing on black sexual politics in the context of African American culture (35). In Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (2006), she discusses many nuances that comprise the intricate nature of sexual politics in North America: the body, sexism, racism, gender roles, ideology, and even how it relates to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Collins concedes that since the colonial archive, racism still is alive and visible in everyday life, particularly for ethnic minorities. However, this present-day racism, she argues, permeates into our consciousness more subtly through social outlets like television and music. The pervasiveness of media sends conscious and unconscious messaging regarding the black body and suggests ways that are acceptable to interact with it (Collins). Authors like Ronald Jackson agree, going further to declare that “black bodies have been thingafied, socially rejected, and treated as foreign to the American ethos” (Collins 44). This new racism is also a means to dictate certain sexual ideologies that can proliferate within the black community, creating further ‘foreignness’ insularly (Collins).

8More specifically, as it relates to the erotic body, Collins is among several scholars that draw attention to how the erotic form has been greatly undermined in its use because of the slave era. Grosholz writes extensively about the slave/master psychology and attests that enslaved black women were seen not as humans, but as property functioning strictly for labour and reproduction (11). The history of white male dominance over the body normalized institutionalized rape and prostitution while intertwining it with the idea of a willing, submissive object for consumption (Jackson 11). Over time, these enslaved figures, destitute of any agency, were used in the United States through the Jim Crow era to craft commonplace cultural stereotypes. Amongst such tropes, none was more infamous in material American culture than the morally promiscuous Jezebel. According to the Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia:

The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty - even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel (Pilgrim 1).

9In this instance, overarching connections can be drawn between archetypes such as the Jezebel and the notion of fetishizing the primitive and erotic. Feminist thinker Anne McClintock offers a narrative of this historical progression of fetishism in Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (1995) beginning with the coining of the term “fétichisme for ‘primitive’ religion” by French Enlightenment thinkers in 1760 (70). The term commodity fetish and “the idea of ‘primitive’ magic” was then adopted by Karl Marx “to express the central social form of the modern industrial economy” (70). Fetishism was transferred “into the realm of sexuality and the domain of erotic perversions” by Freud in 1887 (McClintock). Over time, perceived sexual abnormalities and erotic deviations evolved to be inextricably linked to Africans. McClintock notes that “by the latter half of the 19th Century the analogy between erotic deviance and racial deviance emerged as a necessary element in the formation of the modern European imagination. The invention of racial fetishism became central to the regime of sexual surveillance, while the policing of degenerate sexuality became central to the policing of the ‘dangerous classes’” (71).

10The notion of the black female body as a degenerate site of sexuality poses many psychosocial questions around how black women themselves interact with the erotic. According to Darlene Clark Hine, eroticism and body politics can forge a double-edged sword. While black women undeniably have more autonomy over their bodies than previously, the historical traumas in how the body was brutalized can present black women with challenges in how they regard and engage with their bodies (912-920). This dark history of rape, violence, and objectification has turned the erotic into a psychosocial condition of black identity that can make engagement with sexuality complicated (Clark Hine). Building on this, distinguished feminist scholar Hortense Spillers echoes similar concerns in Interstices: A Small Drama of Words (2003). Spillers contends that black women are often absent participants in their sexual autonomy, calling them “the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb” (152). Indeed, many black feminist scholars echo that the agency of black women over their sexuality has suffered “an absence” as a direct result of what Clark Hine coins a “culture of dissemblance” (912). Jennifer Nash interprets this concept as a coping mechanism, where black women create a façade of corporeal freedom and transparency but, in reality, remain an enigma (507). Tricia Rose provides various reflections that reinforce this notion, highlighting the complexities of sexual abuse, colour dynamics, gender identity, and cultural memory as influential in a black woman’s ability to be open about their intimate life (17). Nash concludes that because of the historical traumas black female bodies have endured, “black women have adopted a ‘politics of silence’ to shield [them] from [the] cultural scrutiny” they have so long been subjected to (Nash 507). Instead of embracing the erotic body, Bobel argues that such lasting cultural icons (such as the Jezebel) have also caused modern women to disassociate themselves from their sexuality in an effort to adhere to politics of respectability (120). Similar concepts are explored in Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1980) through discussions on puritanical sexual repression, where one must suppress anything pertaining to sexuality in order to be considered modern and civilized.

11The multifaceted discourse on black women’s experiences of reckoning with sexual trauma often converges with discourse on their pursuits of agency and resistance (Walters v). As such, Greg Thomas suggests that postcolonial criticism no longer allows for the flat notion of whiteness being associated with rationality and blackness with untamed sensuality (76). Instead, he calls for deeper engagement with concepts of black sexuality and black politics through his “examination of the erotic identities that… clash across the race and class context” (76). Thomas draws parallels between racism and what he coins “sexual neurosis” or the continued conscious sexual objectification of black bodies (87).

2. Retelling the story: integrating gender representation in historical contexts

12Since the latter half of the 20th century, there has been a significant push on the part of feminist scholarship to revise stories of women in the colonial and post-colonial eras, highlighting those who were previously disenfranchised, neglected, or considered inferior because of colour, class, or colonization (Alexander xxiv-xxv). Susan Ware asserts that the challenge of integrating women’s history into classical historical accounts is not simply a matter of “add women and stir” (2). Rather, it requires rethinking and reframing women’s stories by introducing previously-ignored perspectives and accounts to create more accurate narratives. Ware’s point is reiterated by reproductive rights activist, Linda Gordon, who contends that female representation “does not simply add women to the picture we already have of the past, like painting additional figures into the spaces of an already completed canvas. It requires repainting the earlier pictures because some of what was previously on the canvas was inaccurate and more of it was misleading” (5). Regarding historical accounts of women, historian June Pervis contends that history has often been documented in two ways: “the lives of ‘women’s worthies’ and the biography of an individual woman, often a political or religious figure of some importance” (1-2). In addition to this claim, Ruiz argues that the second half of the 20th century also produced a wide range of women’s biographies and memoirs, offering an additional channel of female identity and self-expression (10). Both Maya Angelou’s and Angela Davis’s iconic autobiographies published in America in the 1970’s are examples of how this literary category not only serves as a conversation about discovering selfhood and the journey to inner strength but also brings to light what has customarily been invisible: the black female body. In Angelou’s (2015) case, we explore the journey from the vilified to the reborn body, while Davis (2008) explores the erotic and liberated body (2008).

13In the context of art, scholars like Griselda Pollock challenge the canon - which represents the legitimated conventions of art creation - and discuss the difference that feminism can make in how we interrogate such traditionalist constructs (9). This struggle has long been seen as a culture war but ultimately posed more questions when examining the balance between an effort to integrate womanist inclusions with an appreciation of the complexities of sexuality and gender in how we interpret artwork. Pollock asserts that the act of understanding art through the canon requires acknowledgement that the canon feeds “legitimation of white masculinity’s exclusive identification with creativity and with Culture. To learn about art through the canonical discourse is to know about masculinity as power and meaning, and all three as identical with Truth and Beauty” (Pollock). She also points out that the legacy of representing black women as “slaves or servants” in an “Oriental Harem or domestic interior” is entrenched in Western modernity where the “rhetorical combination of sex and servitude is ‘logical’ only in an economy that has slavery as its political unconscious, and sedimented in its social rituals and erotic fantasies” (294). The defilement of black women “repeatedly occurs as the site of this specific configuration of power as sexuality and desire” (294). Such readings make clear that it is not only the colonial archive but also the artistic canon that we must contend with.

14Feminist scholar, Oyeronke Oyewumi, reinforces this concept in her effort to emphasize that we exist in a world of structural sexism. It has been well documented that western frameworks and structures are inherently infused with gender bias and not free of hierarchical associations. Oyewumi, however, draws our attention to the intricacies of gender and sexuality in the African context. She states that “since the body is the bedrock on which the social order is founded, [it] is always in view and on view” (2). She disavows biological determinism and suggests that biological and social categories of sex and gender cannot be “separated and applied universally” (9). Such binary oppositions create a conceptualized gender ranking system in which often females are synonymous with subordination and males with dominance or privilege.

3. Black bodies as a repository of memory

15Stereotypes rooted in race, class, and gender have long upheld how black female bodies are viewed, ranging from the limitations of being the ‘performative’ gender, the object of control and regulation, or victims of sexual cruelty. Considering the dynamic troubled history of the black female body in the colonial paradigm, many scholars suggest that the body offers more than just a subject matter of historical recollection, but also functions as a “repository of memory” critical to rewriting the narrative of black women (Ruiz 38). Nicols grounds her research in African diasporic studies in the colonial context, coining the term ‘cultural schizophrenia’ as a way to explain traditional projections of racial and sexual oppression on black women. She then reconstructs the term to argue that leveraging the black female body as a vessel of ancestral knowledge can be a tool used to empower black women (Escudero 12). Nicols’ sentiment that the body is connected with memory is echoed by Coppola in Bodily Archives of the Caribbean Diaspora (2012). The author asserts that across literature one can see a positive metaphorical connection between the black female body and archives, vessels, and repositories, which indicate the body as a profound source of knowledge and recollection of its past (29).

16Nevertheless, scholars like Ruiz add that the black female body has also been viewed as a “subversive site of memory and resistance, laying claim to the past” (3). Chandra Mohanty argues that the profound emotions carried through oral tradition, specifically from the voices of women of the African diaspora, play a vital role in identity formation and are “often significant repositories of oppositional knowledge” (33). Such perspectives provide a unique reconstitution of traditionally one-sided historical recounts. Battle encourages this perspective, adding that harnessing the black female body to reintroduce these stories can provide invaluable knowledge of the past, integrating the truth of their experiences as victims of exploitation, trading, sexual abuse, and male violence (23).

17Of the black female histories within the African diaspora that demonstrate the depth of intrusiveness and violence to the body, none is more well-known than Sara Baartman’s. In African Sexualities: A Reader (2011) author Jane Bennett offers a succinct outline of the tragic narrative:

she was taken from the tip of the Cape (from what is now the city of Cape Town) to Europe in 1807, and exhibited in London and elsewhere as a wonder of bodily form, a sexual spectacle because of the shape of her buttocks. After her death in Paris, her genitals were removed as curiosities and these parts of her body were not returned to South Africa until [2002]. (83)

18Theatrically coined the “Hottentot Venus” Baartman was crudely exhibited across major cities because of the peculiarities of her physique by European standards. In her lecture on discourses of corporeal alterity, Coppola propounds that Baartman was symbolically and literally “reduced to her sexual parts, [which were] morbidly exposed as evidence of her irredeemable difference” (29).

19The preoccupation with the sexual organs of the black body was a symbolic starting point in the imperial conquest, enslavement, and exhibition of millions of faceless African women whose private parts were treated as part of an erotically obscene, unfeminine, and deformed body. Historians like Ruiz regard Baartman’s body as a vessel of memory, saying that her history of corporeal exploitation demonstrates that the 18th-century colonial imagination was both enticed and repulsed by African bodies as exotic sexual objects (38). Kimberly Wallace-Sanders also claims that Baartman acts as a repository of memory linking present-day black female bodies with exhibitionism and the notion of hypervisibility. She speaks candidly about how Baartman is a staple in discourse on how black women are linked to a history of mythmaking, racism, sexual deviance, and overexposure:

Being black and female is characterized by the private being made public, which subverts conventional notions about the need to hide and render invisible women’s sexuality and private parts. There is nothing sacred about Black women’s bodies, in other words. They are not off-limits, untouchable or unseeable. (18)

“A Pair of Broad Bottoms,” William Heath, hand-coloured etching, 1810

“A Pair of Broad Bottoms,” William Heath, hand-coloured etching, 1810

20Baartman is the best-documented figure that embodies the overlooked journey of millions of black female bodies. She is symbolic of how the body has been reduced to a mere site of consumption, exploitation, and overexposure under white imperialism. As a vessel of memory, her story recounted in the present day remains a cornerstone in black feminist scholarship and “a central image for the black female throughout the 19th century” and beyond (Walace-Sanders 218). However, beyond academic spheres, references to Baartman can be seen across all areas of society, particularly pop culture and art. The closing sections of this article will explore two South African contemporary artists who are working with traditionally negative tropes to redefine how we interact with the present-day black woman. With the additional connection of sharing the same birth country as Baartman, both artists consider Baartman’s history as deeply connected to theirs. In this case, Baartman is used as a recurring central figure to express the artists’ preoccupations with notions of the erotic. Importantly, artwork that interrogates the black female body archetypes present a paradox in which the exhibition of the body in artwork made by black women artists is an antithesis to this historical image and yet is inextricably bound to it.

4. Retracing the journey of the body: Tracey Rose

21Artistic expression plays an integral role in not only debunking myths pertaining to African female sexuality but also allowing black women artists to present concepts of hypersexualization and the erotic body as taking “an oppositional stance” (Hobson 89). Hobson articulates the need for a cultural shift in how society relates to beauty, saying that “the creation of a black feminist aesthetic must challenge dominant culture’s discourse of the black body grotesque and articulate a black liberation discourse on the black body beautiful” (89). South African multimedia and performance artist Tracey Rose is a prime example of an artist that confronts some of the well-established negative tropes that tie the black female form to the colonial paradigm. In her famed self-portrait Venus Baartman (2001) the artist utilizes Baartman as a symbolic touchstone, using her own naked body to pose outdoors in their shared native land. Art critics like Dewar interpret the artist to be in a semi-crouched position in the African bush as if she is hiding from someone yet in plain sight in the middle of a field (i). She is naked, wearing natural hair in a short afro, and appears to be gazing into the distance timidly. On the opposite spectrum, Desiree Lewis offers a different interpretation by saying that “Rose ironically represents herself as a naked stalking beast. In so doing, she analyses both her own identification in discourses of race and gender and the origin of these discourses in Baartman’s othering” (206).

22Trianosky notes that Rose’s stance deliberately draws attention to her digitally altered breast and buttocks in alignment with Baartman, whose features were a fascination in 19th-century Europe (5.7). This enhancement has never been confirmed by Rose. Meanwhile, Dewar interprets this image to be a way to understand the black female body as “othered” by the imperial gaze and later speaks about how the photo could also allude to the other facets of black women that must remain hidden (i). This allows the viewer to confront avenues of sexuality, gender identity, or past trauma. The many interpretations and uncertainties regarding Rose’s work have been left open purposefully by the artist to highlight that, similar to Baartman and countless other black women, her stories come from a history of anonymity and unanswered questions. Gender researcher Pumla Gqola reflects on contradictions that arise in Baartman’s history: “An enslaved Khoi woman; she was transported to Europe where she was displayed for the amusement, and later scientific inquisitiveness of various public and private collectives in London and Paris. Her paradoxical hypervisibility has meant that although volumes have been written about her, very little is recoverable from these records about her subjectivity” (45). Rose goes further in her artwork to not only mirror Baartman through her own naked body, but conceptually lay bare some of the more subversive stereotypes associated with the black female body: hypersexual, close to nature, and savage-like.

Venus Baartman 2001, Tracey Rose 2001

Venus Baartman 2001, Tracey Rose 2001

Courtesy of Tracey Rose and Dan Gunn, London

  • 2 Seth notes that the 1778 reprint of key sections of History of Jamaica in Columbian Magazine marked (...)

23It is curious that Rose, who is a multi-disciplinary artist in her own right, would use photography as her medium of choice for this work. This is perhaps to draw a sense of irony, referring to the pseudo-scientific practices of 18th-century Europe that brought scientists and explorers alike to the Western Cape to conduct sexual research on the Khoisan tribes. In “The Great Long National Insult: ‘Science’, Sexuality and the Khoisan in the 18th and early 19th Century” (1997) Abrahams discusses the sexual studies conducted by 18th-century Europeans on Khoisan men and women, which were masqueraded as ‘scientific’ interests. This was an opportunity to further reinforce the myth of the ‘Hottentot’ as sexually subordinate and bestial through storytelling coupled with engraved drawings and illustrations. Focusing specifically on the Khoikhoi woman, Rose uses her work to draw attention to the fact that the observations found from such ‘studies’ permeated the European imagination with untrustworthy findings at best; some observers even suggesting that Khoisan female mating habits should be combined with apes2, which were perceived to be physically more similar to them than white women’s bodies (Seth 764). Importantly, her work sparks debate on how these invasive studies demonstrated the Eurocentric perceptions of the body as paradoxically erotic and grotesque. It also makes the point that such observations were accompanied not with photographs, but with rendered drawings, making the Khoisan subject to preconceived biases often translating to lasting one-sided caricatures. Abrahams asserts that it is irresponsible to depend on such drawings to give an accurate idea of what the Khoisan looked like. Rather, its manipulations offer more of an insight into the “sickness” of the white imagination of that time:

I want to suggest that the inhumanity perpetrated against Khoisan women by white men would not have been possible without the denigration. White men had first to be taught to believe that the women and children they were killing and enslaving were less than human. Thus the travel writers, and later the racist ‘scientists’; it was their job to create a discursive world in which such beliefs were possible… I know that the illustrations owe much to visual conventions and popular prejudice and little to the way the Khoisan may have looked. Thus the relation of the illustrations to their putative subject is at best tortuous and obscure… If there is any objectifying to be done, let it be of the men who created the image of the ‘Bushwoman’ and the ‘Hottentot.’” (36-37)

24In Venus Baartman (2001) Rose highlights that the rendering of the African female body was left completely vulnerable to unscrupulous sketch-work that may have expanded, contracted, or adjusted elements like depth, colour, or even facial expression. In other words, how the Khoisan women like Baartman, were depicted by scientists and explorers visiting Africa at the beginning of the 18th century were subject to their individual interpretation of the body (Abrahams 39). In the case of those documenting science, simple drawings would not offer accurate representation as a photograph might. Moffat, who explores the perspectives on Africa in travel writing of the 17th century, agrees with this point, saying that:

photographs have an important function in travel narratives, as part of an account which is presumed to be based on fact. Some narratives supplement a collection of photographs… At times photographs provide the reader with additional information so that the narrative is incomplete without them. (14)

25Therefore, the images in question, without the precision of a photograph, were plausibly exaggerated to create “a psychological armoury which served the settlers as much as the arms and ammunition provided by the colonial administration” (Abrahams 41). Subsequently, this skewed representation influenced by the emotional baggage and personal prejudices against the Khoisan had a large part in shaping the broader image of blackness in the 18th-century white world and beyond.

5. Using the body to reckon with the past: Lady Skollie

26Also using her own body as the central focus of her paintings, Lady Skollie uses ink, watercolour, and crayon to defy taboos and talk openly about issues of sex, pleasure, consent, human connection, violence, and abuse. Her work is simultaneously bold and vulnerable, expressing the joy and darkness of the erotic and the duality of human experience.

27Born in Cape Town, Lady Skollie, or Laura Winvogel, began selling erotic paintings while balancing two jobs, one hosting a local radio talk show and the other as a hostess for pleasure parties where she offered sex education to small groups. Through small-scale sales, her work was soon noticed and led over time to her first solo show in 2014. Skollie’s work spans topics of consent, taboos, pleasure, abuse, and the race/class/gender paradigm almost exclusively using the black female body as a centrepiece. You can easily identify Skollie’s work through her use of bold colours and textures, but also how her work lays bare the vulnerabilities and traumas of the black female form as well as the “erotic and the duality of human experience” (Tyburn Gallery).

28In 2016, Skollie positioned herself as a formidable black feminist artist in her international exhibition called “Hottentot Skollie.” Similar to Rose in her use of Baartman as a cornerstone of reckoning with the violent colonial paradigm, Skollie focuses on the objectification of the posterior and the hypersexualized manner in which society continues to consume the female form:

In this selfie driven era, the gaze of the booty is a never ending cycle. Baartman being the star of her freak show, Hottentot Venus, sends echoes through history in the way women are still perceived. The platform for the objectification has shifted, no longer on a physical stage or cage but in a digital realm. Instagram is technically just another cage right? (Worldart)

29In one of her pieces, Untitled (2018) Skollie fittingly focuses a discussion around the “fascination with booty” that has been policed from the time of Baartman to the present day. Through this work, a black and white painting messily outlines the silhouette of a female form that has a significant posterior and large hanging breasts. Importantly, the painting only shows a figure from the neck down and gives no indication of the face attached to the body. This silhouette is situated with a black background, smeared and seemingly tousled to the point where some parts of it remain white. Stripped naked but unidentifiable because of the absence of the face, Skollie’s intention in this piece is to explain how the countless faceless black figures are defined by colonial myths around “their hypersexuality and their physical degeneracy and their tantalizing exoticism” (Lewis 206).

Lady Skollie. Untitled. Hottentot Skollie, 2014.

Lady Skollie. Untitled. Hottentot Skollie, 2014.

Twitter @ladyskollie
Courtesy of Ladie Skollie

30Lady Skollie has an elegant way of both mirroring Baartman’s figure and relating to Lorrain O’Grady’s concept of “unmirroring” as presented in “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” (1992). It is fitting to interact with the symbolism of the mirror, one popular use of it being in freak shows like the ones used to display Baartman in 19th-century London and Paris. This notion of the carnivalesque body presents multiple levels of reckoning, starting with diminutive physical representations, but also introduces the concept of grotesqueness and distortion like what one might find in a circus funhouse mirror. O’Grady works with this mirror metaphor in several ways, suggesting the need to uncouple, or unmirror, the historical representations of black female bodies to offer the opportunity for black women to present themselves free of projected bias. She states that “to name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves. For some of us, this will not be easy. So long unmirrored, we may have forgotten how we look” (14). Historical stereotypes of the black female body continue to shape a narrative that is being countered through art critique as part of larger black feminist scholarship. Baartman is just one of the many iconographies that, as O’Grady contends, “casts black women as simplistic stereotypes. [Such icons include] … the ‘Hottentot Venus,’ ‘Jezebel,’ ‘mammy,’ ‘Sapphire,’ ‘welfare queen,’ and more recently ‘quota queen’ and ‘baby mama’” (14). Through Untitled, Skollie works to start this process of unmirroring, which can only take place by confronting dominant cultural imagery around black women and dismantling it.

31In another painting, entitled Objectifying thyself before others do (2016), Skollie continues to interact thematically with the black female form, inspired by the story of Baartman and the fascination with the posterior. In an interview on the exhibition, she proclaimed that: “Booty is a big deal!” (Worldart). However, in this instance, she draws inspiration from her own body, reclaiming her backside as a pillar of sexual strength while still being very torn by the paradox of body consumption. The painting presents another silhouette in black with unsettled brush strokes. This woman’s body mirrors Baartman’s protruding posterior and large breasts. However, in contrast to the example above, the background of this work is in colour and is a flurry of semi-abstract vaginas painted in smudged earth tones, reds, and browns. Interestingly, the body has a visibly defined shaved head but is holding what appears to be a cell phone raised to face level in what looks like preparation to take a selfie. Skollie reflects on her use of the body in this work and how it connects with Baartman’s story, saying:

This show is dedicated to Sara Baartman and to the years she was stripped, put in jars, preserved and paraded against her will. Now my ass has become my Samson’s mane; I draw strength from it. I revel in it. I take pictures and videos of it that I’ll never share because what if I contribute to the over sexualization of the black female form? What if I’m just a 2016 version of Sarah rolling in my digital grave trying to find the perfect ass pic angle? (Mhlungu)

32Skollie takes into account some of the paradoxical challenges of consumption that arise by using her work to display the black female form with strong references to Baartman. She draws attention to how in the age of social media, audiences have more options of where they consume, therefore opening the body to more avenues of potential objectification. However, in this case, Skollie uses her work as a meditation on recapturing power through the erotic body by voluntarily electing to show her image as a means of reckoning with the colonial past.

Lady Skollie, Objectifying thyself before others do. 2016

Lady Skollie, Objectifying thyself before others do. 2016

Tyburn Gallery London ©
Courtesy of Lady Skollie

6. Conclusion

  • 3 The plural is intended here. It has been widely used in feminist and indigenous studies to refer to (...)

33Taking ownership by becoming the artists themselves and harnessing the black female body image to their will signifies the black women “asserting dominion over their own bodies” and reclaiming agency in their identity (Wallace-Sanders 114). This article thus argued ways in which such traditionally diminishing labels are being reclaimed through modern expression to re-establish images of the black female body as a source of empowerment. Revisiting the landscape of body politics to contextualize the erotic served as a useful method of aligning the colonial archive with present-day scholarship. The article endeavoured to examine the efforts in black feminist knowledges3 to reintegrate gender representation into conversations around the black female body. In looking at the iconography of Sara Baartman, the article aimed not to fully revisit her history, but instead recognize the endurance of her body (and countless African women slaves’ bodies) to serve as vessels of cultural memory despite a violent past.

34Finally, focusing on the different ways Tracey Rose and Lady Skollie interact with the body and the colonial paradigm demonstrates the sophisticated and layered nature of working with the black female body archetype. Skollie’s paintings add to an important discourse confronting taboos around gender identity, sexuality, and the erotic. She also emphasizes, without a clear decision being made, that she recognizes her responsibility in managing these images to honour the historical past. Rose simultaneously uses her own body to lay bare the historically anonymous nature of the black female body, leaving the subjectivity of its form questionable. By endeavouring to unmirror from the colonial violence and stereotypes of the past, this ideological struggle to redefine the black female body must continue amongst African woman artists.

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1 The emerging trend in contemporary African art to represent the erotic and further conceptualize the intersectionality of race, class, and gender is rarely analyzed. This study is designed as a starting point to examine how the ‘reclaiming’ of the black female erotic body by emerging female contemporary African artists provides a yet to be understood critical framework. The design of a new structure might be warranted in order to confront body politics, taboos, and promote female sexual and gender representation in the African context.

2 Seth notes that the 1778 reprint of key sections of History of Jamaica in Columbian Magazine marked a watershed moment in the perceptions of the Hottentot for American readers (2014). In the featured passages, Edward Long details his findings that associate apes with the Hottentots, indicating that Khoisan women were, “so similar… to orangutans that a Hottentot woman should regard it as no dishonor to be wedded to a simian husband” (2014: 764-765). “The views Edward Long espoused on Africans and people of African ancestry in his The History of Jamaica” Fọlarin Shyllon noted in Edward Long’s Libel of Africa, “qualif[y] him for the title of father of British racism” (2021, preface).

3 The plural is intended here. It has been widely used in feminist and indigenous studies to refer to situated embodied knowledges (plural) as opposed to Eurocentric male-dominant knowledge (singular).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Lust Politics, Lady Skollie, 2017
Légende Tyburn Gallery London ©Courtesy of Lady Skollie
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre “A Pair of Broad Bottoms,” William Heath, hand-coloured etching, 1810
Fichier image/jpeg, 256k
Titre Venus Baartman 2001, Tracey Rose 2001
Légende Courtesy of Tracey Rose and Dan Gunn, London
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
Titre Lady Skollie. Untitled. Hottentot Skollie, 2014.
Légende Twitter @ladyskollieCourtesy of Ladie Skollie
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Lady Skollie, Objectifying thyself before others do. 2016
Légende Tyburn Gallery London ©Courtesy of Lady Skollie
Fichier image/jpeg, 661k
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Tayler FRIAR, « The black female body: Representation of the erotic in contemporary visual art in Africa »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Tayler FRIAR

University of Cape Town
Tayler Friar holds a BA in International Studies from Spelman College, an MSc in International Development from University College London and is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Cape Town. She is the founder of ART|unknown. - which explores the intersection of African avant-garde and development. Her research interests include the politics of visual culture and black feminist knowledge.

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