The naked form in art has been an area of artistic fascination for centuries. From the prehistoric rock paintings in Southern African caves to the grandiose depictions of folklore and religious figures in European chapels and museums, the human body in the nude has consistently been a subject of interest in art, particularly the naked female form. In the Metropolitan Museum, colloquially known as the Met, in the United States of America, 85% of artworks containing naked figures displayed a naked woman and the possibility that the artist themselves is a woman is approximately 5%. (Girls, 1989) Consequently, the relationship between the female naked body or its interpretation and how it is viewed in art is reflective of a predominantly male outlook. Additionally, the representation of art created by black female artists in museums is at an even lower percentage despite the subjects of influential artworks being black women.
In 2019, the Musée d’Orsay renamed Édouard Manet’s Olympia “Laure” (Fig 1) after the Black, French model who featured in multiple Manet paintings and Marie-Guillemine’s Portrait of a Black Woman to Portrait of Madeleine (Fig 2). This move indicates the recognition of black women’s participation in art history even though progress is at a snail’s pace.
Emerging from the 1960s onwards, black female artists have begun creating their own space in the art world. Through a traditional subject such as the nude, they have been able to narrate their stories and experiences in a way that transforms their position in art from the Subject to the Narrator, fully in control of their depiction. This essay will explore how black female artists confront ideas of sexuality, sexual and racial violence through the use of the naked female form as the subject matter. Through the works of Lady Skollie, Alison Saar and Renee Cox, the perception and understanding of black art and black female sexuality are reconstructed.
The Black Female Body and Violence: Strange Fruit — Alison Saar (1996)
Suspended from an empty room in the Baltimore Museum of Art, is a sculpture (Fig 3) created in 1995 by the American sculptor, mixed-media and installation artist, Alison Saar. Through this jarring installation, Saar aims to highlight America’s treatment of black women. The sculpture of tin alloy, wood, dirt and found objects formed into the shape of a voluptuous, naked female form with a bright splash of red-painted lips is hung with a rope from its feet. (Fig 4) This positioning resembles a scene from one of the lynchings of black folk in the South post-slavery until 1960 in the United States. Additionally alluding to that period is the title of the artwork which is the title of a song of the same name written by Abel Metropol and famously sung by Billie Holiday in 1939 as a response to the terror exerted on Black people motivated by racism and white supremacy in the Southern states of the United States. (Almanza, 2014) The ‘strange fruit swinging in the Southern breeze’ (Holiday, 1956) is a metaphor for the decaying corpses of predominantly Black men that would hang from trees after being hung by white supremacists.
However, Saar’s rendition of this gruesome murder involves a female victim. With distorted facial features and her hands covering her pubic area and cradling her breast, in a similar manner as Sandro Botticelli’s Venus, Saar’s ‘Venus’ is battered, scarred and turned upside down. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Saar mentioned that she finds a lot of beauty in discarded objects which is indicative of the story that Strange Fruit tells. Approximately 100 interviews with older Black women were held, where experiences of racially motivated rape were documented. (Joe Feagin, 2014) ‘’Between 1940 and 1956 only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact it happened regularly.’ said Danielle McGuire, (2010) about the high rate of rapes of black women during the Jim Crow era, which she penned a book about. It was a rarity that men would be arrested for the rape of black women and even rarer to reach a conviction. Governor of South Carolina from 1910–1914 Cole Blease notably expressed his belief that rape as a crime could never be committed on black women. (Litwack, 1998) As lynchings embodied horror for black men, rape is what black women feared most. Documentation of racially motivated rape of black women in public and in jail custody is however not included in the histories of the Civil Rights Movement. (Mcdonald, 2017) Strange Fruit portrays the forgotten and silenced sexual assaults of black women through the naked figure hung at her feet.
Simultaneously, the sculpture expresses healing. Saar’s interest in diasporic art from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America is incorporated by the leaf detail on the stomach of the sculpture. The stomach is considered the centre of healing in the Congo which Saar chose to highlight by darkening the shape. As much as the artwork aims to draw attention to the horrors of rape of black women, it implies the need to heal from past traumas. Alison Saar’s Strange Fruit displays in its battered, charred and inverted form how the black female body has been a ground for racial and sexual violence in the United States of America which requires unpacking and investigation. The sculpture demands the attention of the audience comparable to the attention on the sexual violence experienced by black women which is even in current times ignored in movements such as #MeToo, inefficient policing and the American judiciary system.
The Black Female Body and Sex: Objectify thyself before others do — Lady Skollie (2016)
The association of a naked black women with hypersexuality is a result of the exotification of black women by the West’s gaze which dominates modern views of black women’s bodies. Discussing this theme in art is South African artist, DJ and radio host, Lady Skollie. The ink on Fabriano paper (Fig 5) shows the profile of a woman with large buttocks and breasts with a vaginal pattern in the background. The figure is a reference to the story of Sarah Baartman (Fig 6) also known as the Hottentot Venus who was the inspiration of the series by Lady Skollie called Hottentot Skollie.
Information about Baartman’s origins is academically disputed although copious books about her story have been written. Commonly, it is said that Sarah or Saartjie [the Dutch diminutive] Baartman was a Khoi woman born in 1789 near the Gamtoos river, Kouga on the East coast of modern-day South Africa. Her large buttocks and curvaceous figure gained attention from an English doctor named William Dunlop who convinced her to relocate to England with her employer Hendrik Cesar under the pretense that she would be financially compensated when she signed a contract to become a dancer. (Alake, 2019). Upon arrival, Baartman was paraded as an act in a freak show at the Picadilly circus where onlookers would view her scantily clothed in a cage. The show gained popularity and attracted the attention of British abolitionists who brought Dunlop and Cezar to trial for slavery. In her testimony which was made under duress, Baartman refuted the claims of mistreatment supported by the contract which Baartman signed. The riches promised in the initial contract never reached Baartman and in September 1814 she was sold in Paris to Sam Reaux, a French man where she continued to be exhibited alongside animals. She became the subject of a study by French naturalist George Cuvier until her ultimate death in 1816. (Sorene, 2016) Her life was the embodiment of the fetishization of black women’s bodies and the hypersexualisation of their bodies. Postmortem, a mold of her body continued to be displayed in the Musée del’ Homme alongside her dissected brain and genitals until 1998 when South African president Nelson Mandela requested for French authorities to return her remains to be buried near her birthplace in 2002.
Skollie aims to reclaim her sexual experiences as a ‘woman of color’ through not only her artwork but through her provocative discussions about sex. (Gbadamosi, 2017) This reinterpretation of the story of Sarah Baartman deals with the objectification of and limitations imposed on black women’s bodies. Whether it is the obsession with their behinds or the policing of young black girls outside and inside the community where it is commonplace to label them as “fast” or more sexually advanced. Objectify thyself before others do is a response to Skollie’s experience with hypersexualisation and her depiction of Baartman, holding the cellphone and taking an image of her body herself, has autonomy over her body. The theme of lust is a complex one that Lady Skollie discusses in all her work, but in particular with this artwork which explores how colonization affected black women’s attitudes towards sex and their bodies. In the exhibition extract, Skollie mentions that the platform has shifted from the physical cage that confined Baartman to a digital one which continues to confine black women’s relationships to their bodies and sex. From Pornhub’s 2014–2015 yearly review the search for “Big Booty” increased by 486% (Skollie, 2016) and the obsession with buttocks is dominating pop culture.
However, these caricatures and hypersexualised myths of black women have not been empowering even though their body types have entered the mainstream. What is being praised as an ideal, not a reality which is a reflection of the exotification of Sarah Baartman. As a black female artist who openly talks about sex, Lady Skollie grapples with whether the nude images of black women can ever be removed from being associated with sex. Through Objectify thyself before others do, she also reflects on whether she is just a 2016 version of Sarah seeking validation from a world that will view her naked body as an exotic sexual fantasy regardless of who is behind the camera or paintbrush.
The Black Female Body and Freedom: The Good Little Catholic Girl — Renee Cox (2001)
Known for her work as a photographer for Essence Magazine and self- portraits of staged scenes, Renee Cox uses her own naked body to free herself and in extension black women at large from society’s ideas of black women’s sexuality. In direct response to her hyper-religious upbringing, the American Family series is a mix of archival childhood photographs and self-portraits. The Good Little Catholic Girl (Fig 8) consists of a shot of Cox naked, bent over with her bottom exposed and another of the nude Cox suggestively covering her genitals. At the centre of the two images is a childhood portrait of Cox at catholic school. The juxtaposition of the adult Cox in a sexual position and the young Cox innocently posing in school uniform expresses the development of her identity influenced by self-determination.
Cox’s work has been subjected to censorship, most notably the backlash she received from New York mayor Rudy Giuliani for her work Yo Mama’s Last Supper (Fig 9) in which she recreates the scene of the Last Supper with her in the role of Jesus. (Croft, 2001) Religion as a theme is representative of Cox’s own journey with religion and in using her naked body as a symbol of power and freedom that comes from God. The negative responses to her work include claims of her being narcissistic and unnecessarily provocative however Cox credits this response to society observing a black woman fully embracing her naked body. “The biggest thing is that people of color have learned, after years of oppression, to have self-hatred. I have tried to heal myself. I no longer suffer from self-hatred.” said Cox in an interview with Salon magazine. What some audience might interpret as provocative or vulgar is actually a knee jerk reaction to seeing a black woman have the freedom to display their naked bodies in any way they want to. It is the deliberate display of the power of Cox’s photograph that is rejecting the status quo. (Cox, 2014)
This is evident in The Good Little Catholic girl where Cox is no longer the meek, obedient little girl but a powerful black, woman who loves herself and her body. The nude images are confrontational about their sex appeal in a manner that does not seek the validation of the audience. Cox’s usage of nude is a refusal to be made invisible in a world that erases black women’s stories and imposes their ideas of black womanhood. The Good Little Catholic Girl is Cox’s metamorphosis from an innocent black girl to a powerful black woman who is comfortable with their sexuality.
The voices of black women currently within the art industry are beginning to be given a larger platform whether as the forgotten names of the models in influential works to being the artists exhibiting at museums and galleries. Opportunities to share their stories and experiences as black women are influencing a newer generation of black women who can relate to who and what they see in galleries. From education of the untold violence enacted upon black women in the US to introspection of how historical legacies influence how black women view their bodies and sexuality, Alison Saar, Lady Skollie and Renee Cox are moving beyond the limitations of the art world’s “white cube” and reclaiming their position as artists using the nude as a powerful storytelling tool.
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