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Ulla Angkjær Jørgensen

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.

Epic Theatre and the Culture of Spectacle

Aesthetic Figuration of Body and Race in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus

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Ljubica Matek

Abstract

In her rewriting of Sara Baartman’s story, Suzan-Lori Parks relies on the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht to mobilize contemporary readers and viewers and provoke them to reflect on the problematic issues of racial and sexual typecasting both past and present. Because Baartman was displayed as an object – a spectacle, the play Venus is also constructed as such: contextually, it heavily references Victorian freak shows, one of the most objectionable forms of spectacle, and formally it depends on the postulates of dialectic (epic) theatre, itself a type of spectacle. In this way, the interplay of the cognitive and the visual that is available in the phenomenon of spectacle is enhanced. Moreover, Parks rejects historical accuracy by pointedly adding new, fictional elements to the plot, that is Baartman’s life story, and thus prevents the audience’s identification with the protagonist. The desired effect of the audience’s alienation (estrangement) is politically motivated and crucial in epic theatre, as it engages the spectators’ critical skills about the available epistemological frameworks that can and need to be changed.

The Finger That Mocks the World

Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby and Images of African American Womanhood

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Carmen Birkle

Abstract

Carmen Birkle addresses the representation of black womanhood, embodied in African American artist Kara Walker’s massive woman-sphinx sugarcoated sculpture, entitled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014). By drawing on parody and the African American concept of “signifyin(g)” – both of which imply repetition with a critical difference, though in slightly different ways – Birkle argues how history and the stereotypification of black female sexuality are brought together in the oversexualized Black Venus figure that parodies Jezebel and the related idea of promiscuity, but also symbolizes black women’s roles as Mammy and Aunt Jemima figures in the service of their white masters. With reference to African American musician Nicki Minaj’s wax figure at Madame Tussauds Las Vegas and her “Anaconda” rap video, the chapter explores how Sugar Baby and Minaj taunt white representations, stigmatization, and steretypification by way of seemingly adopting, yet critically inverting them, reclaiming their sexuality and right to self-representation in the process.

Gazes, Faces, Hands

Othering Objectification and Spectatorial Surrender in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Vénus noire and Carl Th. Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

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Jorunn S. Gjerden

Abstract

Jorunn S. Gjerden addresses viewing behaviour induced by cinematography in Abdellatif Kechiche’s portrayal of Sara Baartman by comparing Vénus noire (2010) with Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). The juxtaposition of Dreyer’s figuration of the epitomised androgynous and virginal white woman and Kechiche’s critique of the typecast hyper-feminine and over-sexed black female body reveals that despite their alleged contrast, the protagonists of both films appear as dehumanised constructs of a similar white male gaze associated with institutional power abuse and knowledge production. With reference to Gilles Deleuze’s theories of haptic visuality and the affection–image, Gjerden argues that facial close-ups, camera and frame mobility, lightning and kinaesthetic patterns at the same time undermine such objectifying diegetic gazes on the level of reception in the two films. Their cinematographic techniques activate the viewer’s response performatively by way of an optical loss of perspective and an increased bodily involvement. Consequently, drawing on insights from Dreyer’s film, Vénus noire challenges the objectifying gaze on Black Venus through its concrete formal structure, as it replaces the cognitive mastery corollary to Western typecasting with a bodily spectatorship of surrender and immersion.

H.C. Andersen’s Black Venus Fairy Tale

“The Marsh King’s Daughter” and the Aftermath of Danish Colonialism

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Kjersti Aarstein

Abstract

H.C. Andersen’s fairy tale “The Marsh King’s Daughter” (1858) has previously been recognised for its aesthetic complexity and intricate depiction of sexual anxiety. Kjersti Aarstein is the first to address the colonial theme of the story, a theme affiliated with the Black Venus figure. She explores Andersen’s twist on fairy-dale tropes, such as allegory and certain poetic images and formulas, in relation to his Black Venus heroine, who is trying to manoeuvre in a violent, colonial landscape. Reading the “The Marsh King’s Daughter” alongside Andersen’s play The Mulatto (1840), and drawing on diverse historical materials, Aarstein challenges the view that H.C. Andersen was not critical of European imperialism, arguing that the later tale addresses both the history of colonial violence in Denmark and its colonies, and the possibility for healing. Thus, she also opens the discussion of the figure of Black Venus to the yet uncharted Scandinavian scene.

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Camilla Erichsen Skalle

Abstract

Camilla Erichsen Skalle discusses the near-comprehensive presence of Black Venus figures in Italian colonial propaganda during the so-called ‘scramble for Africa.’ Building on the work of Giulietta Stefani, she shows how these figures are crucial in the construction of a virile Italian masculinity that comes, later, to define and dominate the fascist era. Within this construction, Africa, often described metaphorically as an exotic-erotic Black Venus, serves, paradoxically, as the site for both masculine re- and, possibly, degeneration. Italy has never come to terms with its colonial history, thus the Black Venus tropes and metaphors continued to appear also after Italy’s colonial and imperial defeat. Focusing on the male and imperial objectifying gaze, Skalle demonstrates how the very same stereotypes structure and influence what have come to be seen as the first novels to critically engage with Italian imperialism and the fascist ideologies of masculinity: Ennio Flaiano’s Tempo di uccidere (1947) and Mario Tobino’s Il deserto di Libya (1951).…

Refiguring Black Venus

Preliminary Considerations

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Jorunn S. Gjerden

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Željka Švrljuga

Abstract

Željka Švrljuga’s reading of Beryl Gilroy’s Inkle and Yarico explores how the novel’s intersectionality of race, gender and class, and the grammar of desire are deployed in the rewriting of the semantics of the Venus figure. With a starting point in a seventeenth-century footnote in Caribbean history, the novel uses the travel motif as its thematic impulse: from the “discovery” of the New World to its colonization. This, the chapter argues, is reflected on many levels – geographic, historical, narrative – and in the re-figuring of the Venus figure through metonymic displacements, metaphoric replacements, and supplementation. Also, by drawing on the Venus and Adonis myth and William Blake’s engraving Europe Supported by Africa and America, Švrljuga’s analysis opens for a thorough exploration of the relationships between critique, narration, aesthetics, and genre.…

The Voice of Venus

Angela Carter’s “Black Venus” and the Democratization of Literature

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Kari Jegerstedt

Abstract

Kari Jegerstedt raises the question of how, if at all, it is possible to ‘give voice’ to the abjected, always already erased other, considering the simultaneous world-scattering and wor(l)ding effects of imperialism on writing and (post)colonial regimes of knowledge and subjectivity. Addressing the question from the perspective of the (self)critical white feminist, Jegerstedt revisits Carter’s short story “Black Venus,” lauded by critics for giving voice to Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s Caribbean lover. Jegerstedt stresses that the narrator does not simply re-present Duval but quite explicitly substitutes her own ‘voice’ for Duval’s – thus enacting a similar overwriting of Duval’s voice to the one Baudelaire may be said to do. She goes on to argue that, rather than ‘giving voice,’ the story problematizes the (imperialistic) silencing which is at work in what Jacques Rancière has called the democratic era of literature. At the same time, however, the short story also points to the earlier oral tradition and the fairy tale as alternative narrative venues for establishing global solidarity, thus highlighting again the issue of genre in questions concerning the imagination.

The Wild Woman, the Little Mistress, the Hottentot Venus, and the Pedestal Monster

Living Curiosities and Their Counter-spaces in Two Texts by Charles Baudelaire

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Margery Vibe Skagen

Abstract

Drawing on nineteenth-century medicine and natural history, Margery Vibe Skagen compares the Hottentot Venus figure in Baudelaire’s prose poem “La femme sauvage et la petite maîtresse” with a dream of a monstrous male counterpart on display in a museum/brothel, which is recounted in his correspondence. The two texts have never previously been explored in relation to the figure of Black Venus. Both evoke socio-cultural urban spaces associated with different kinds of spectatorship (the fair, the brothel, the freak show, and the museum), as well as the living curiosities or monsters these sites display. With reference to Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopia, Skagen considers these spaces as “counter-spaces” which express a strong cultural critique that also targets imperialist power structures and enlightenment ideals. Her readings indicate how heterotopias challenge established scientific truths and the existing world order by inverting them. Thus, through a transference of meaning between the different spaces they mirror, Baudelaire’s texts raise questions of race, animality, gender, prostitution and violence, without giving any definite answers.