The Evolution Of Nude Black Women In Art

By Alisha Acquaye

Lead image: Beyoncé’s “Sorry,” Lemonade (2016).

The first time I saw her, I was about 9 years old. My aunt gathered my cousin, brother, and me into the living room to watch a television special on people in an African country. I remember seeing dusty clay roads, orange and yellow landscapes where it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the earth began, small huts where beautiful families with brown skin lived. And the women were not like women I had ever seen before. Their breasts were exposed, hanging low like curtains guarding their hearts. Their breasts decorated the wrappers that encased small infants on the backs. Their breasts gently swayed as they carried large jugs of water on their heads.

Their nudity didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, but intrigued. They seemed free.

The men must have been nude or partially nude as well, but I don’t remember them. There was a carefree grace about the women that stayed with me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. My family is from Ghana, and growing up I felt uncomfortable about the negative stereotypes of Africans and Africa. Once, in elementary school, a classmate asked me if African people run around naked in the jungle and throw spears. Mortified, I told him they don’t. But these women lived their life in the nude, and I admired it. To me, it made them enchanting.

I had always loved the act of adorning myself with clothes and accessories. But to be black and bare is a completely different kind of beauty, one that I had yet to know.

The next time I saw her was in a music video. Her name was Erykah Badu. She walked down the street wearing layers of clothing: sunglasses, a trench coat, a hoodie, sweat pants, sandals. She slowly peeled off her clothes, as if they were a distraction from her comfort. People stopped and stared as she stripped. She finally stood in her full nude form, expressive black femme curves and all.

She enjoyed her public nudity for mere seconds before she was gunned down by an anonymous force.

She was free, but her freedom meant death. And then, immortality. After Erykah delivered a short monologue, she walked toward the camera, smiling, beaded tresses framing her face. That was the first time I recognized black girl magic.

I saw her again in 2014. She was a mountainous, miraculous white-sugar sphinx dwelling in The Domino Sugar Factory. Slave boys made of molasses and brown sugar surrounded the goddess. She was nude, wore a headtie, and had intricate black facial features: a wide, flat nose, large lips. Her breasts kissed the earth, her hips spread out like wings. Her butt and privates were there for all to see.

Several men rushed to her backside to take pictures with her vulva. While I gazed at her and contemplated the meaning of her body — the beauty of black women, the problematic American history and the misogynoir stereotypes that have emerged from that history, the commoditization of our figures — the male viewers saw an opportunity to profit from her nudity, to increase their social media capital by posing with her most intimate parts. Objectification, at its finest.

I am her. My breasts stand to attention like apples waiting to be picked. My skin shines in response to the relentless sun peeking through the windows. The slender roads outlining my waist travels down to a valley of hips. My hair is a cloudy black sky.

I sit in the center of a room surrounded by questioning eyes and meticulous hands. They scratch away at rough sheets of paper with their charcoal, pencils, paints. The room smells like the breath of many artists, the musk of used art tools and the enticing, floral scent of an unpetalled body.

It was my art major friends who suggested I try figure art modeling, and as a broke college student, curiosity led me in. I had always been interested in finding new ways to express my femininity, and something about nude modeling felt sensual and liberating. I decided to give it a try.

There were its beauties: the turn-on of being looked at; the different interpretations of my shape, eyes, skin, and hair, parts of myself I thought I knew so well but which were reflected so abstractly by eyes other than my own. There were horrors, too: the creepy teacher who asked for a private session at his house; the student who asked me out to coffee moments after seeing me naked in class. Their ignorance reminded me that a woman cannot be free in her skin without men trying to reign over her sexuality or self-expression.

For some time, when I thought back on my odd profession — or rather, considered modeling again to earn some extra cash — a sour taste entered my mouth. I began asking myself what it meant to be a black female nude in a room filled with white students. Was my nudity contributing to years of racism and black heartache, or was I assisting in the reclamation of black women’s bodies because I chose to drop my robe?

I had to take a step back to try and figure out who she is, the black female nude.

During the colonization of Africa and slavery in the Western world, the idea that black women were barbaric, libidinous, and sub-human arose. Black female bodies were sites for intense labor, reproduction, and capital. It is difficult to talk about the history of black nude women without first discussing Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman. Sarah, known as the “Hottentot Venus,” was a fascinating subject for Europeans because of her voluptuous figure, large behind, and genitalia.

The exhibits began in 1810 in London and Paris, and continued for five more years. Some books have contrasting views on whether Sarah Baartman was sold as a spectacle or willingly signed up for what she was told would be a well-paid job, but either way, the outcome was her being treated like a specimen. She was presented in a cage, accompanied by an animal trainer, literally introduced as an animal.

Kimberly Wallace Sanders explains the complexities of misogynoir best in her book, Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture: “Being black and female is characterized by the private being made public, which subverts conventional notions about the need to hide and render women’s sexuality and private parts. There is nothing sacred about black women’s bodies . . . They are not off-limits, untouchable or unseeable.”

In 1814, Sarah Baartman caught the eye of Georges Leopold Cuvier, a comparative anatomist who strove to prove the differences between Sarah’s body and those of white women, determined to distinguish Hottentots as a different species of people altogether. His account of Baartman’s figure — to him, her head looked like a monkey and she moved like one; he was obsessed with her genitalia, and believed her body was inherently sexual and savage; he thought her feet were pretty, but was repulsed by her face — was considered, in scientific circles, to be an accurate account of African women. In Europe, Sarah was remembered for being “intensely ugly,” a distortion of European beauty standards.

There is another woman who is notorious for her nudity, but not in the same way as Sarah. While Sarah was stripped of her physical agency, Josephine Baker was in control of her body and sexuality. A performer in Paris in the 1920s, Josephine was known for her extravagant, erotic shows. One of her most famous is the “Banana Dance,” in which she winds her waist and hips sensually while wearing a skirt of faux bananas.

Josephine Baker’s means of expression and performance contrasted with a view held by some black women at the time. Women’s clubs were popular in the mid-1800s to early 1900s, and along with it came the culture of dissemblance. Historian Darlene Clark Hines defines this as “a politics of silence, evasiveness and displacement — in an attempt to protect themselves (black women) from sexual violation.” Dissemblance was a defense mechanism some black women used to protect their bodies from sexual exploitation, ensure they didn’t fit stereotypes, and move their gender and race out of view. While Josephine bared herself to European audiences, many other black American women wanted to move away from the stereotype of hypersexuality.

But what about visual art? Interestingly, women were not the first muses in Western art; in ancient Greece, art was centered around the nude male body. Male beauty was considered the pinnacle of physical excellence, exhibiting heroism and strength. This shifted in the seventeenth century, and nude women became the norm in art. When I studied art history in public school and in college, there was a scarcity of nude black women as muses — another reason I was drawn to art modeling.

Yet there are many black women who are the muses of nude art and the artists behind it. Photographer Renee Cox is my favorite example: she brings visibility to black female bodies by making herself the center of her art. Through her bright, colorful images, she slashes stereotypes of black female bodies as sites for labor, science, and sexuality. Instead, she rejoices in her figure, reinterprets classic European paintings, and utilizes aesthetics within black culture to show that nudity can be empowering.

Take, for instance, her retelling of Jean-Augustine-Dominique Ingres’s Le Grande Odalisque. In Ingres’s painting, a white woman relaxes on a blanketed chaise longue, her back facing us while she looks back at us. Her pose is sensual, the curve of her side boob present, the hump of her buttocks subtle. In Cox’s version, aptly titled Baby Back, she positions herself at the center of the scene. Like the protagonist in Ingres’s painting, her back is turned, but this time we get a full view of her butt. Her back is intentionally arched; there are no sheets to hide parts of her figure. From the title, we know she wants us to take note of her glorious ass: “Damnnn, baby got back!”

Nude art can spark discussion on painful histories. In “White Shoes,” Nona Faustine brings awareness to slave sites in New York City by posing in places where slave auctions occurred. Wall Street, one of her scenes, becomes a haunted echo of what it once was as she stands on a box in the middle of the street. The taxi unintentionally acts a slave ship, a foreboding reminder of trade, transportation, and tyranny. She wears nothing but a pair of dainty white shoes, and that one piece of glamour envelops the gravity of the situation, the sad truth that black people were once commodities. Nonetheless, Faustine is a full-figured woman, with creamy dark brown skin and a stunning face. Her nudity alone is striking, because society does not condone the visibility of large bodies.

Society also tells transgender people that their bodies are not acceptable or beautiful. In April 2015, actress, activist, and model Laverne Cox posed nude for Allure magazine. In her interview, she says she initially felt conflicted about doing the photoshoot, but she decided it would be an important display of black beauty and trans body positivity. “I felt this could be really powerful for the communities that I represent,” she explains. “Black women are not often told that we’re beautiful unless we align with certain standards. Trans women certainly are not told we’re beautiful. Seeing a black transgender woman embracing and loving everything about herself might be inspiring to some other folks.”

Nudity has a long history of being used to raise awareness, practice activism, and make bold statements. In 1929, Nigerian women used nudity to win wars and fight against colonialism and the patriarchy. Last year, hundreds of women marched topless in the streets of San Francisco to protest police brutality against women of color. This year, South African women held a topless protest to raise awareness on alleged rapists on campus. The list continues, and the point is clear: our society has tried to suppress the female body so adamantly that the bare sight of it in public can be ammo in any battle we choose to fight.

At this year’s Afropunk, Ericka Hart, a queer activist and breast cancer survivor, attended the festival with her breasts bare. Ericka went topless to bring visibility to black women with breast cancer, as she realized during her surgery that there was no representation of women like her online, even though the rate of black women with breast cancer has increased during the last decade. Her display not only reaffirms a new standard of beauty, it shines light on women of color who have faced breast cancer.

The subscribed meaning of the black female body has shifted over the centuries — once seen as a dehumanized specimen, an overworked machine, an abused or hypersexualized body. While still an underrepresented body in the media, I see it as a beautiful landscape, a powerful instrument for social change, a shape that is coveted and imitated. I watch as non-black women try to replicate our curves, aspire to our style, force their hair texture to be like ours, feign our full lips. These are physical features they can obtain with enough money and patience, but our history and struggles are aspects they cannot purchase, priceless stories they will never understand.

I saw her once more in Beyoncé’s Lemonade. At the end of “Sorry,” there is a stunning moment when a tribe of women walk through the forest, their bodies glowing in the daylight, hair styled atop their heads like crowns.

The camera captures them from the low, grassy earth, and in that shot we understand the secret of these black women’s bodies. They are magical, magnificent, the women as ethereal as goddesses, yet they belong to the earth as much as any root or flower.

Today, in my search for who she is, I feel less alone and conflicted. We are more than flesh and bones. Our bodies speak volumes; our existence in history, in art, in this world, is valid. My skeleton has stories to tell. These curves cannot be silenced.

The blinding winter sun plants kisses across my bare skin while I stand by the window. My hair is in short bob braids. I’ve shed my clothing. It’s Valentine’s Day. My lover stands behind a camera and tripod. He takes a picture, pauses, looks up at me, asks me to move this way or that. Then, as if struck by lightning, he says, “Stop! Stay right there.”

The photoshoot was my idea. It is one of our most intimate ways of communicating, a conversation of camera clicks and the shuffling of my body. If I listened close enough, I could hear us breathe. I smile to myself, feeling grateful for my skin, my slight curves, my imperfections, my rewards.

I’m free.

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