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In 1810, a black Khoisan woman from South Africa named (by her slave-master) Saartjie Baartman was brought to London and became an entertainment sensation. Kept in a cage, she was exhibited seminude in sideshows and exclusive drawing rooms because of her extremely large buttocks and unusually elongated labia. Commoners at sideshows shouted vulgarities; aristocrats in private viewings ogled and discussed her “curiosities.” By the time of her death in 1815 she was known as the Hottentot Venus and by midcentury had become prime evidence in the emerging pseudo-science of anthropometry, which postulated the evolutionary inferiority of African people generally and the sexual deviance and promiscuity of black women in particular. Baartman’s brain, skeleton, and genitals remained on view at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974.

That’s the historical boilerplate of a considerably more complex case. Baartman, an orphan whose original name is unknown, was an intelligent woman, spoke fluent Dutch, and certainly knew why Europeans found her physically aberrant. She also knew that oversized, “stacked” buttocks, which were due to an unusual accumulation of adipose tissue, were commonplace even among Khoisan males and in females were considered beautiful. Also fairly commonplace was the heavily draped labia Europeans called the tablier, French for “apron,” referred to in English as the “curtain of shame.” When we consider this cultural, ethnographic configuration, we have to ask: Who exactly is the Other? Baartman, whom European eyes perceived as a grotesque evolutionary throwback? Or Europeans, whose amused disgust for such sexual features would have struck Africans as savage, unenlightened, and a sign of lousy taste?

The Hottentot case hints at the complexities cracked open by Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body, a new exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art that according to the catalogue intends to present “ideologies of black womanhood from three different perspectives: the traditional African, the colonial, and the contemporary global.” Ideology is embedded consciously or otherwise in all the images and objects on display. Indigenous carvings and ceramics, photos, paintings, sculptures, and one eerie video installation — all have something to do with constructed identities and self-perceptions. The modern work in particular interrogates how a black woman sees herself as an object of perception. It’s conceptually the busiest exhibition I’ve seen in a long time, analyzing and exemplifying the endlessly inflected expressions of the encounter between black and white, homeland and colonization, local economies and appropriation, beauty and ugliness, as they were and still are played out in the representational arts. At the center of it all is the African female body.

The stuff on view is extraordinary, and it’s saturated with information. The Dogon people of west Africa, for instance, are represented by a fantastic mask-headdress worn by males in a dance that mocks the intricate, finely braided, cowrie-shell-decorated hairstyles of neighboring Malian women. The Zulu ritually shared beer from a large pot, and the exhibition includes a beer pot shaped like a pregnant belly decorated with colonial-era scarification patterns that women designed to beautify their bodies. The pots were crafted by women and, made from clay, were literally of the earth, mother of us all. Some items are a little fanciful but pinch nerves anyway. The contemporary Alison Saar portrays herself with dreads capped by bottles like benevolent hydra heads. The reference is to “spirit bottles” found in New Orleans and other black cultures — a voodoo shop on South Street, the axis of Philadelphia’s black culture during my childhood, sold them — that contain magical powers and probably derive from tree spirits worshipped by some African tribes. Saar says the bottles express dreams, ideas, and fantasies radiating from her mind. She’s drawing on inherited, shared communal ritual to articulate modernist, self-aware subjectivity.

The exhibition puts a tight counter-spin on the art of portraiture. The welcoming painterly photograph that splashes hugely at us from its alcove is a self-portrait by the Jamaican-American Renée Cox, a former fashion photographer whose nude self-portraits raise a noise about how women, black women especially, are treated as fetish objects, especially when they’re “Orientalized.” Cox poses on a 19th-century chaise longue, head in profile, naked back turned toward us, mimicking the subject of Ingres’s 1814 La Grand Odalisque, except that Cox looks like nobody you would want to mess with: instead of the peacock-eyed feather fan held by Ingres’s woman, Cox holds a snappy-looking cat-o’-nine-tails; instead of boneless buttery bare feet, Cox sports red satin six-inch heels. Elsewhere in the show we have black (and white) women — African, European, American — representing themselves and other black women, not only as they perceive their subjects but as they imagine how others perceive them. This gets even more twisty when the imagined gaze of the spectator (portraiture now is more performance than examination or inquiry, so “spectator” is the accurate term) is filtered by historical assumptions, ethnographic misrepresentations, inarticulate sexual stirrings, and tolerance for sass.

Colonization generates subjection and humiliation of many kinds — moral, social, racial, intellectual, cultural. To properly subjugate an alien culture, the colonizer tries to break down the cultural tissue that creates tribal or cultural unity. Making visual claim to an indigenous culture is one means of appropriating it. In the American tradition we refer to vernacular photography such as snapshots and postcard illustrations with no thought to the word’s origins in the Latin de verna, “of slaves.” A vogue in 19th-century Western Europe were postcard photos of African women, valued for their exoticism and border-crossing of racial-sexual consumerism. The photos could be rationalized as the given right of colonizers to “record” their captive populations, but it was also a new pornographic resource passing as ethnography. Western males and females alike were enthralled by the shape of the female African body. (Never mind that there were as many different body types as one would expect on any continent.) As with every sort of art it includes, the exhibition takes postcard photography and turns it this way and that, illuminating its uses and its moral-political implications in the relationship between European ideologies and African-ness.

Cards often represented two views of a subject: one mostly naked, featuring what to Europeans might have seemed the unusually conical breasts of nubile women or low-slung breasts of women who have nurtured children; the other partly or fully dressed in native costume. The double image enhanced the (dubious) ethnographic value of the cards but mostly, I think, served as a two-panel strip show. Cards that revealed the African female body allowed viewers to enjoy the manipulated exposure, exposure in every sense, of the other, to pleasure or delight the viewer. Some show an African woman cradling a breast with her hand, which might be taken as a sexual come-on or invitation. In most African cultures, however, the gesture wasn’t sexual; it signified religious reverence. The cards also ask us to reexamine our assumptions about photography-as-evidence. From the beginning, photography was valued for its unequivocal evidentiary value even while recognized for its artificiality: rig the photograph and you rig evidentiary “truth.” A lot of the contemporary art in the exhibition picks apart this and other kinds of rigging.

I’ve gone on about postcards because they so grabbed my own (who knows how ambiguous?) attention. But there’s a tangled-wire argument just about any way you turn. It’s a cliché that modern art was invented not in Paris but in Africa, because its forms were generated by masks, headdresses, and shields Picasso and Matisse were seeing in Parisian galleries and flea markets. The catalog reminds us that because these Western artists were pirating these objects for their formal value, they were practicing a colonial activity of their own. The exhibition restores many aesthetically enchanting objects to their context of use and their function as spirit sources that bound together indigenous communities. It may alter for good your way of looking at African art generally. That said, the sheer formal beauty of the objects will stop your breath. My favorite is a staff from 19th-century Tanzania sleekly carved in the form of a mother carrying her young daughter on her back. Mother and child both bear scarification beauty marks and traditional high-rolled hair, but their figures are counter-torqued. The mother faces forward; the child, feet hitched on her mother’s hips, turns her head, as if she’s already looking away from the mother toward her own womanly initiations.

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