Colonial Bodies in Display Cases and Spectating Bodies

A Contemporary Art Critique

In: Exploring the Black Venus Figure in Aesthetic Practices

Abstract

Through readings of artworks by Iranian Fariba Hajamadi, South African Tracey Rose, and Americans Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen examines how contemporary visual arts have brought into play European museums’ ways of exhibiting the black body as a sign of otherness since the start of colonization. She argues that the traditional museum exhibition requires the viewer to adopt an aesthicizing and exoticizing gaze, closely associated with masculine agency and superiority, and epitomized by the display case. By practicing a tracing of learned habits and prejudices akin to what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has described as ‘un-learning,’ contemporary visual arts make use of the display case in order to provoke a feeling that the object is looking back at the spectator, and thereby expose the colonial worldview written into the western mindset through centuries of education and institutionalization. The trope of Black Venus is thus inscribed into the very form of these artworks, through the way in which visual and bodily aesthetic practices either enhance or abolish the air-less, time-less bubble that separates the spectating body from the displayed body.