Race and Misrepresentation: The Black Body in White Art History

The art world may seem an insignificant realm in the fight against systemic racism, but as Kehinde Andrews explains ‘the production of ‘high’ culture is one of the central claims to European supremacy’: racism past and present, relies on systems of culture to justify it. In fact, art has often been explicitly used as a tool to advocate for white supremacy.  

Recently works of art were looted from 5Art Gallery in Los Angeles and the words ‘fuck white art’ were graffitied onto it. So much of the art that we see in our museums and galleries is distinctly white. Black people have been systematically excluded from the artistic canon. Even when black people become the subject of art works, they are often depicted in a problematic way. This is particularly evident in the artistic portrayal of black women; they are frequently objectified, eroticised, or depicted as uncivilised. Moreover, notions of modern art and contemporary art are focused upon Eurocentric beliefs that the West is the pioneer of modern, radical thought.

The Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous activists, describe themselves as the ‘conscience of the art world’ and aim to expose discrimination within artistic institutions. They have revealed how BAME artists, in particular black women, are underrepresented in museums and galleries. Their 1986 poster campaign draws attention to the fact that, at that time, only four commercial galleries in New York exhibited work by black female artists. The Guerrilla Girls have been active more recently; in 2016 they revisited their 1986 poster It’s even worse in Europe and wrote to 383European museum directors asking them to respond to 14 different questions about  diversity. Only a quarter of museums actually responded to their questionnaire. The Guerrilla Girls concluded that if museums are excluding non-white artists from their galleries: ‘they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just preserving the history of wealth and power.’ Art history, as we know it, presents a very singular human experience and the Guerrilla Girls have powerfully unveiled the shocking lack of diversity in the art world.

As well as omitting black artists from the artistic canon, art has been used as a white supremacist instrument of power, functioning to project whiteness onto the world and to advocate for white supremacy. Sophia Galer uses the mythological story behind the Clash of theTitans to exemplify this: Princess Andromeda, who is saved by Perseus, was whitewashed by art history. Elizabeth McGrath (1992) argues that there is no doubt that Andromeda was actually black: Ovid describes her skin colour as such, and Greek mythologists described her as an Ethiopian princess. She is afrequently appearing mythological motif, yet she has been consistently depicted as white. In Piero di Cosimo’s Perseus Freeing Andromeda (1510-1515),she is depicted as the whitest figure in the painting. Examples of whitewashing in art history extend far beyond Andromeda; the Queen of Sheba, anEthiopian queen from the Bible who visited King Solomon, was repeatedly depicted as white despite her declaring in the Old Testament ‘I am black and beautiful’. The erasure of blackness and white washing in the history of art isa poignant example of the legacy of white supremacy in high European culture.  

Even when the existence of black people is acknowledged in the art world, their depiction is often problematic. This is most evident in so-called ‘Primitive’ art: art created by modernist painters such as Picasso, Derain and Gauguin, who took inspiration from African art forms and culture. Artists frequently used traditional masks to influence their rendering of the figure. Masks and other tribal objects were being circulated more widely during these artist’s lifetimes because of the period of European colonisation of non-Western regions.Many of these objects were stolen from countries under European rule. These artists had a proto-cubist style which involved simplifying the 3D, reducing it to its planes. As such, they viewed these masks, and subsequently African art and culture, as simplified and reductionist. This can be seen in Picasso’s famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) which depicts sex workers in brothels in a figuratively abstract style. The sex workers’ faces are mask-like and were thought to be influenced by Fang Ngil masks. The way in which Picasso connects women and the ‘primitive’ is problematic; the ‘primitive’, and with it the links to non-Western civilisation and art, is overtly sexualised by the subject of sex workers, who are depicted in an aggressive, menacing way.

The 1984 exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art at the MOMA also highlights the presence of the Eurocentric, white gaze in both the artists that create these ‘primitive’ works, and also in the way they are exhibited.Modernist artworks were displayed alongside tribal objects. This illustrates how tribal art is deemed to be timeless, with no cultural specificities in contrast to modernism.  Emi Eleode’s modern reworking of this piece places the actress Pam Grier, from the film FoxyBrown (1974), into Picasso’s piece. I spoke to Eleode, who said:

‘When I first made this digital piece, it was more of a way of practicing doing collage art […] I watched the Blaxploitation film Foxy Brown featuring Pam Grier as lead actress and was inspired to create something to honour this amazing bad ass black woman.I did a post on @arthistorytalks on famous female nude paintings […] and came across the Picasso painting. I thought the image would work really well with the image of Pam I found online to celebrate her greatness. At the time, I didn’t know much about Picasso copying work from traditional west African art symbolism but after watching the show ‘Civilisation’ on BBC (2018), and seeing it spoken about on this installation I saw at last year’s Venice biennale, I was like damn this man got all this credit for stolen ideas. People thought he was the one that created these techniques. I guess in a way, now it all adds a bigger meaning to the collage piece I made than when I originally made it a few years ago. Back then, it was for aesthetic purposes to recreate a static picture featuring an inspirational black woman on an iconic painting. But now after everything I’ve read now on the issue of Picasso’s stolen ideas, it brings about a much deeper meaning to the recreation.’

Her piece beautifully shows how art can take on different meanings as time passes and ideas shift.Moreover, it subtly challenges the white canonicity of art. Picasso’s original artwork is a deeply problematic, oppressive piece which appropriates Ngil culture and is telling of how he sexualised black cultures whilst simultaneously considering them to be threatening. Yet, Eleode’s reworking of it turns Picasso’s prejudices on their head: it becomes an empowering, liberating portrait of an iconic black women. Alongside so-called ‘primitive’ art, art using black sitters as its subject has historically objectified and sexualised black people.

The Instagram account run by Alayo Akinkugbe @ablackhistoryofart describes ‘the extreme objectification of black sitters in Western art history as a result of ‘exotic’ features and darker complexions’.  She describes how many black sitters were slaves and their sexualisation shows how they were viewed by their masters as mere sexual objects. For example, in Pisanello’s Allegory of Luxuria (1426),the black sitter is depicted as the personification of lust as a vice.Moreover, Marie Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait D’une Negresse (1800),depicts a slave from Guadeloupe who was brought to France.  In 2019, the Black Models exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, renamed Benoist’s artwork Madeline, as only recently had this been discovered to be the name of the model. They also renamed Manet’s Olympia (1863), Laure, to honour the maid depicted in the painting. This is an important move to humanising black women within the history of art. This small but symbolic gesture should inspire further acts that humanise and recognise the suffering of these black female sitters.

Often modern and contemporary art is considered to be an exclusively Western phenomenon. I was disappointed to discover that one of my favourite artists, Grayson Perry, questioned whether Aboriginal art could be considered contemporary art. His views may encompass a much broader, problematic view of contemporary art, which is reliant on the belief that the Western world is the pioneer of change. This is a deeply myopic, Eurocentric attitude given the success of non-Western contemporary exhibitions, such as the exhibition Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, showcasing the art of a celebrated femaleAboriginal artist. It was originally held in Canberra and then toured in Japan due to its immense popularity. The National Museum of Australia describes heras ‘one of Australia’s greatest contemporary artists’ and her work is acclaimed world-wide.

Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili challenges the Eurocentric nature of understandings of the contemporary. He is described on the Tate website as one of Britain’s most important contemporary artists. He draws on various cultures in his work including Zimbabwean and Trinidadian influences and is well known for incorporating elephant dung into his art. His piece No Woman, No Cry(1998) is an incredibly poignant painting of Stephen Lawrence’s mother, DoreenLawrence. In the image she is crying, and each tear contains a photograph of her son. The piece is a powerful tribute to Doreen Lawrence, who was awarded an OBE for campaigning tirelessly since her son’s racially motivated murder.

The whiteness of the art world can be seen in the omission of black artists from galleries, from the use of white washing in art history, the problematic depiction of black subjects by white artists, and how the very notions of the modern or contemporary are grounded in Western prejudice. However, this is beginning to be challenged; the Black Models exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay is a significant example of this. Yet, it still has far to come. The art world must dismantle centuries of white supremacy and an important step towards this is prioritising works of art by non-white artists that capture the experiences of non-white people. Artists such as Chris Ofiliand Emi Eleode are representative of how the art world could capture a much richer, more universal experience.


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Andrews, K., 2020. France Is AddressingBlack People’S Invisibility In Art. When Will The UK? | Kehinde Andrews.[online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/france-black-people-art-musee-d-orsay>[Accessed 20 June 2020]. 

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  1.  Eleode, E., n.d. [Digitalcollage]. Image Source: Emi Eleode. 2020. Digital Art — Emi Eleode. [online]Available at: <https://www.emieleode.com/digital-art-1> [Accessed 30 June2020].
  2. Guerrilla Girls, 1986. It'sEven Worse In Europe. [Screenprint on paper, 432 x 560 mm]. Image Source: Tate.2020. ‘It’S Even Worse In Europe’, Guerrilla Girls, 1986 | Tate. [online]Available at: <https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/guerrilla-girls-its-even-worse-in-europe-p78801>[Accessed 30 June 2020]. 
  3. Guerrilla Girls, 1986. Only 4Commercial Galleries In NY Show Black Women. [Screenprint on paper, 430 × 560mm]. Image Source: Tate. 2020. ‘Only 4 Commercial Galleries In NY Show BlackWomen’, Guerrilla Girls, 1986 | Tate. [online] Available at:<https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/guerrilla-girls-only-4-commercial-galleries-in-ny-show-black-women-p78806>[Accessed 30 June 2020]. 
  4. Marie Guillemine Benoist, 1800.Portrait D'une Negresse. [Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm]. Image Source: KhanAcademy. 2020. Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait Of Madeleine (Article) | KhanAcademy. [online] Available at:<https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/rococo-neoclassicism/neo-classicism/a/marie-guillemine-benoist-portrait-of-a-black-woman>[Accessed 30 June 2020].
  5.  Ofili, C., 1998. No Woman No Cry.[Oil paint, acrylic paint, graphite, polyester resin, printed paper, glitter,map pins and elephant dung on canvas, Support: 2438 × 1828 × 51 mm]. ImageSource: Tate. 2020. ‘No Woman, No Cry’,Chris Ofili, 1998 | Tate. [online] Available at:<https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ofili-no-woman-no-cry-t07502>[Accessed 30 June 2020].
  6. Piero di Cosimo, 1510. PerseusFree Andromeda. [Tempera grassa on wood, 70 x 120 cm]. Image Source: Uffizi.it.2020. Perseus Frees Andromeda By Piero Di Cosimo | Artworks | Uffizi Galleries.[online] Available at:<https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/perseus-frees-andromeda> [Accessed 30June 2020].

Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa

Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)