Broken, Defaced, Unseen: The Hidden Black Female Figures of Western Art – The New Yorker

In Italy, in Florence, hangs Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” perhaps one of the world’s most celebrated paintings. The goddess Venus stands naked inside a tremendous scallop shell, gliding along the waters, riding the shell like a vessel. It is her birth, but instead of arriving as an infant she comes to us as an adult woman, fully formed, skin whiter than marble, golden tresses gathered together in one hand like endless blades of curling sea grass. Instead of pointing to her breast, she places her other white hand delicately over her heart. She is attended by two gorgeous gods, a redhead and a bronze-colored brunette. They blow her shell toward shore. Pink flowers with lush red centers fall from the sky like morning rain. As they hover above Venus’s shoulder, the whiter god wraps his arms and thighs around the darker one, as if not to fall out of the sky.

When I was a child, looking upon this Venus, I would think that predictable thought: I want to stand inside a giant shell. I want red flowers to fall from the mouths of clinging angels. I want to hover in the heavens, too.

One day-a banal day of phone calls, cleaning, walking, fetching a child from the playground, watching that child go down the slide-you turn the page of a book, and there it all is, an etching:

“The Voyage of the Sable Venus”

Here, the goddess is not white as marble; instead, she is a celestial black female, standing where she has never stood before, throughout thousands of years of Western art: right in the middle of the canvas. She is not just a torso. She is not holding a service tray or selling fruit or hanging from a rope. Like her sister in Italy, she, too, is poised atop a seashell, gliding along a gorgeous ocean.

The strapping and cut celestial figures in Botticelli’s painting have been replaced, however, and here she is attended by white cherubs, most of whom fan the Sable Venus with long white ostrich plumes. A few carry the feathers of a peacock. Cupid, above, takes aim at Triton, below. They are all riding across the middle of an ocean, shepherding the Sable Venus to some as yet unclaimed place. Indeed, perhaps her body will be used as a land claim, a territorial marker, a stake, a fleur-de-lis.

Instead of pointing to her breast, like the Virgin, or covering her breast or heart, like Botticelli’s Venus, the Sable Venus has a pair of reins threaded through both of her hands. The reins are harnessed to two dolphins, dolphins that pull her chariot-shell through the sea. Unlike Botticelli’s pure and naked Venus, the Sable Venus wears one article of clothing: a pair of what can only be called colonial panties. And, unlike Botticelli’s Venus, the Sable Venus is strong, curved, muscular: a woman’s woman. Her form is twice as wide, with girth, her muscles: cut, lean. She is the embodiment of strength-no fragile anything in need of anyone. Her dark skin is adorned with jewels. All eyes are upon her and at her service-finally.

When she was first rendered as an engraving by Thomas Stothard, in the late eighteenth century, and later painted, in 1801-and still today “The Voyage of the Sable Venus” was considered a visual travesty, an inversion of order. “How, at the height of slavery, could a black woman be drawn by dolphins through the primordial seas, adored and attended by the gods of Classical Greece?” goes the purist response, meaning the gods would never be seen in the company of a black female body, not to mention serve as her attendants. Others, recognizing immediately the atrocious irony, still question whether the painting was a satire. For, in 1801, her scallop shell could only be a metaphorical slave ship. Did the Sable Venus enjoy her trip across the Atlantic, gliding along the Middle Passage, guided by a white male celestial harem, destined for slavery?

Besides these obvious observations, however (that the world was on fire then; indeed, that is has been burning for millennia-and not only that-but that the majority of our population seems to be enjoying the blaze), you begin to feel a third question about the image rising in your throat, a subtler question about words. That is, quite simply, you begin to wonder if you had ever seen the words “sable” and “Venus” in the same sentence, at any point in time, in any language, anywhere, in print?

Just think of it: a word as exhausted and under-investigated as “Venus”-had you really never seen it occur intimately with something dark and adjectival?

Of course, the answer is, simply and tragically: no.

It wasn’t merely the Sable Venus’s iconicity that grabbed me by the neck. Nor was it that deeply satisfying but ultimately simple delight in seeing the white Venus replaced by the black-as delicious as all that is, and it is! -that gesture was too undemanding, of myself, of history. Which is to say, ever since Rome, we keep replacing the statues but continue playing the same blinding games. When perhaps the real neurosis is our desire for monuments of any kind. Perhaps, instead of looking up for an icon, we need to look down and cherish and adore, even worship, the people working quietly right beside us, or, even more subtly, working-via memory-right within us. Real beauty isn’t tit for tat, as fun and even justified as revenge can be. So “The Voyage of the Sable Venus,” for me, is something more than a visual sleight of a historical hand. That something more is in its title. “The Voyage of the Sable Venus” is an epic written in one line.

The poet Marilyn Nelson once remarked that, if one has the ear and takes the time, even the front page of the newspaper is laden with sonnets. The back of a cereal box contains songs. Language is an organ, a musical instrument. Which means that even when having an argument we are singing.

The title -“ The Voyage of the Sable Venus”-contains the story of all our histories.

Could it be, I wondered, that, instead of the intellectual propaganda we call “history,” the more honest, simple, and accurate narrative of art, of perception, was hiding right there in plain view-not, however, in the imagery but simply in what the image is called, within the signs, within the words?

If we went back, if we went all over the world and looked at every object, every statue, every painting that included a black female figure in any way, and wrote every title down, what would art’s epic sing then?

I never thought that I would find more than just a few titles. I never thought that I would travel through time.

What began as a small experiment expanded into the history of art in the entire Western world. The museums were invisible graveyards. They were just sitting there: broken, defaced, unseen. A catalogue of bodies.

It was an invisible archeology-an archeology that crisscrossed time and space. Everywhere I went, I found them, just off, just to the edge, just beneath: pieces of black female bodies buried in plain sight. A small black female carved into the handle of a tool. Miniature black women who could fit into your palm. A three-inch-long black female carved into a knife handle, so you could hold on to her body tightly whenever you sliced your daily bread. A palm-sized black woman in your hand when you brushed your hair at night, looking absently into the mirror. A spoon handle, a drum, a hammer, a flute-black bodies sculpted into the wooden frame surrounding a heroic painting of a white male on top of a white horse, riding triumphantly into war. Black female bodies ornamenting the tripods, the base of a table, sleeping inside the frame, selling, offering, tending in the background of innumerable paintings. Bending, standing, waiting. Our whole artistic history crawling with the decorative bodies of black women.

Every continent, every country, every time period, every museum, every exhibit, every gallery, every library, every archive, every repository, every court.

We were everywhere.

I don’t know at what point it happened, but over the years my project stopped being research, and I began to feel that although I lived in New York, and although I was a mother with a three-year-old son, carrying four bags of groceries while hauling his stroller and him up four flights of stairs, mashing him bananas and avocados during the day, there remained, nevertheless, a very vast part of me that was leaving to serve onboard a great ship only I could see. It just happened. One evening, as my son slept in his room, it felt to me as if a vast and ancient ship berthed itself in the middle of our block, right outside my window in the East Village, on Ninth Street. Long before Hurricane Sandy would wash into our lives, a year before someone’s white sofa went drifting down our block at two in the morning, I had already seen our street transformed into an ocean, and that ocean held a curious vessel that I knew had come only for me. The captain of this ship was the Sable Venus herself, and she gently demanded that I get onboard. The voyage had just begun, thirty-eight thousand years ago.

The first days, we were alone, just the Sable Venus and I; she would dock our ship, and I would get off in Ancient Greece, say. Or I would get off in Colonial Williamsburg. She’d wait onboard. In each port, I’d go onshore and begin searching-in museums, in libraries, in archives, in courthouses.

I’d take my son to museums several times a week. I spent my first Mother’s Day with him strapped to my chest at a Kara Walker retrospective. He was a just a few weeks old at the time, and the black and white silhouettes astounded his eye. I took him with me on airplanes, boats, ferries. Wherever we went, I visited museums. I wrote down every title I could find. After countless exhibitions, countless books, I had collected thousands of titles. Any art object that contained even a fragment of the black female form I wrote down. Maritime museums, train museums, weaponry museums, courthouses.

My duty was to find them, to find each one, to bring the broken bodies aboard. I hid the sculpture in my hair. I hid the paintings in the baby’s stroller. I became a very accomplished international art thief. It was easy. By writing down the titles only, I was able to steal all of the art by leaving it there. Not the object but the title; that was the grand theft, not the art. I’d write down the title in my notebook, bring her aboard, wrap her in blankets, clothe and feed her. By the end, the ship was full.

U ntitled Untitled Untitled Untitled. Hundreds of thousands of female figures of every race in Western art are titled simply “Untitled.” Double that number are named “Anonymous. ” One could write the word “Untitled” repeatedly on a piece of paper every day for the next hundred years without stopping, and you’d never reach the end of female namelessness.

It was an exercise in the redemptive power of silence. The art challenged me to stop speaking. The titles were adamant that our opinions and theories about art were wholly unnecessary.

I tried “to write about it.” I tried to write something else. I tried “to write” more, to say something about how it feels to be on your knees in a museum with a magnifying glass, to be under suspicion by the museum guards for doing nothing other than looking more closely.

I tried to write about the hysterical laughter that would project from my mouth in the middle of the night as I discovered yet another unbelievably heinous art object, so sick the modern mind could have never conceived of it. Why would anyone desire to carve the foot of a black woman at the end of a table leg? Why would anyone find it pleasurable to sit upon a chair whose legs, instead of a simple, elegant form of smoothed wood, ornamented with dahlias or peonies, say, had been sculpted into the shape of four miniature black women-four miniature black female chair legs-their hands extended high above their heads, to hold up the sitter? Which kind of sensation did it create to place the backside of one’s body down upon a seat supported by eight miniature, wooden, brown female hands?

Each time I tried to write about the art itself, I would find yet another image or object whose title, shockingly, could say more about human beings in a few words than any writer or artist could accomplish in a million pages, with a million images.

When the voyage ended, I was-of course-the last one to know. I am convinced that every figure onboard knew our time was ending, but each agreed to hide that fact from me. Again, perhaps I was enjoying being with the dead too much. Perhaps, while documenting their slivered testimonies about how they came to be just a dot of a woman standing off to the side of a canvas, or a table leg, or fragment of a figure, I myself was turning into a statue.

As the ship turned in from the Atlantic, I saw the New York skyline. But when we got to the pier, there was an odd silence. Not the usual ecstatic ruckus a ship chock-full of broken women, recently freed, will make. Instead, nobody moved. No one took any steps forward toward disembarking. They all just turned and looked at me, silently.

It was my turn this time. How could I not have anticipated this?

Instead of going onshore and returning with more images, more forms, I was the broken body who would be getting off and not coming back. I was the one who had been rescued. Now I was the object, the image.

A whole ship of them, an invisible ancient ship of black females, on which I had lived for thousands of years. Just like that: gone. It was done.

And then, quite simply, it was the present. Suddenly, I was walking up the East River toward Chinatown. Suddenly, my son was still asleep in his bed. Suddenly, I was making him oatmeal before school. Suddenly, I was sitting on the subway going to the hospital where I worked.

They were gone. I could feel them out there: a massive ship of broken clay figurines; pieces of a canvas; millions of women named “Untitled”; hundreds of thousands of serving girls-women who could never sit-so many arms filled with baskets and bowls, bent over in perpetual service; thousands of little Venus figurines; women in petticoats-bleeding; women with parasols; women with the heads of lions or deer; someone wearing a fabulous polyester suit; someone running for President, her fingers open in Peace!; someone walking alone down a street, stopping to stare into a window on a Sunday morning. The ship was an ark-and all of them were singing and cackling.

There is a disease to which one can succumb when returning from an ocean voyage. In French it is called mal de debarquement, but in English it is called disembarkment sickness, or land sickness: an illness one feels after ending a prolonged voyage at sea.

After the trip has ended, one still feels the ocean rocking beneath one’s feet. The whole room sways as if the house were floating atop an ocean. You get seasick while sleeping in the suburbs. You never stop hearing the ship’s bell, quietly but symphonically, ringing the hours of your watch.

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