Exhibiting Bodies focuses on contemporary responses to the ways in which the black body has been positioned and represented in colonial imagery, modernist art and the mass media. Colonial era representations often used conventions drawn from Western science to justify the racist attitudes underpinning slavery and to treat the black body as mere object – one ultimately that could be bought and sold without conscience. Early twentieth-century Surrealism sought to challenge these practices, yet frequently also portrayed the black female body in particular as exotic or ‘other’.
The enforced transportation and display of black peoples for the sake of amusement in colonial exhibitions in Europe reinforced the prejudiced ways in which the black body has traditionally been viewed. Since the 1980s, women artists have returned to the representation of the black female body, framed through devices such as scientific or classificatory photography, tourist postcards, advertising and pornography, to explore racial and gender stereotypes and inequality. By investigating these means of representation these artists expose the history of false or pseudo-scientific ideas on which they are based.
In her self-portrait Venus Baartman 2001, Tracey Rose poses as Sarah Baartman, a Khoi-San woman from Capetown, South Africa. Baartman became known by the racist name the ‘Hottentot Venus’ after she was brought to Europe in 1810 and displayed as a side-show attraction. Rose’s work pays tribute to Baartman whom she transforms into a symbol of black female struggle.