Body Images, Then and Now
By Esther Iverem
about "The Black Female Body" and other visual art forms!
Those of us who areall in one bodya woman, a person
of color and a person of working class or poor origin, already know
about the discomforting gaze that seeks to consume or "objectify"
us for prurient entertainment or derogatory judgment. Those of us
who fancy ourselves members of the Black female intelligentsia may
feel we know about even moreeverything from Saartjie Baartman
(the Venus Hottentot), who was displayed in 19th century Europe
as a sexual freak, to rapper Lil' Kim, who uses the sexual freak
badge as a modern marketing tool. But all of us, and all who care
about representation and culture, must read "The Black Female Body:
A Photographic History" (Temple University Press)," by Deborah Willis
and Carla Williams.
Filled with carefully chosen images, many rare and some never produced
for mass distribution, this 228-page volume is a groundbreaking,
scholarly yet accessible analysis of how the Black female body has
been represented in photography from its inception to the present.
Using aesthetic, social as well as historical approaches, Willis
and Williams illustrate how the photographwhich can create
a false sense of reality and authenticityhas been a powerful
means of reinforcing the European view that darker peoples of the
world are inferior. As an extension, the images, especially those
of nude, partially nude and undressed women, helped create a justification
for colonialism, slavery and sexual abuse of Black women. They write:
"Above all else, [the Black woman's] image, and especially her body,
was understood to represent that which could be dominated and that
which could be possessed, especially sexually."
It isn't always easy to look at this book. The 1850 images of two
African American female slaves, Delia and Drana, made to strip to
the waist for the camera are heartbreaking. While frontal and profile
images seem designed to type the unsmiling women as ethnographic
specimens, they actually mark the women's subjugation and humiliation.
So while "The Black Female Body" is beautifully produced and the
sort of volume usually considered a "coffee table book," I do not
think it is the kind of book to lay around the home to be leafed
through casually, especially by children. Many of the pictures,
if allowed to speak for themselves, subvert the book's purpose and
allow perpetuation of negative images without a deeper understanding
of the manipulation behind them. Our children should see these images
but only if we also explain to them what they are seeing. This book
isn't all eye candy.
Williams and Willis, a MacArthur fellow, have compiled a tour de
force of images and text that will make you think differently not
only about African and African American history but also about the
unique struggles that Black women have within that larger history.
Depending on your relationship with your body, you may find yourself
negotiating painful memory or a defiant new territory of freedom.
By exploring also how Black photographers, and Black female photographers
in particular, have reclaimed Black female images and bodies through
their work, this book does not leave us in a state of victimization.
In some sense, "The Black Female Body" is the antithesis of "Reflections
in Black," the massive 1999 exhibit and book by Willis. By chronicling
images taken of Black people by Black people, "Reflections in Black,"
lets the subjects speak. In contrast, images in "The Black Female
Body," particularly those in the first sections devoted to "Colonial
Conquest" and "The Cultural Body", often do not allow such voice.
The focus herewhile reaching to include supporting material
from essays, films and even comedydoes not waver from the
taboo and beautiful Black female body, and the various gazes upon
Esther Iverem's film reviews also appear on BET.com
-- May 24, 2002
2001-05 Seeing Black, Inc. All Rights Reserved.