The “hottentot venus” in Canada modernism, censorship, and the racial limits of female sexuality

There is an indelible mark in the memories of my Canadian undergraduate education as a student of western art history.1 If I had been given a penny for every time a professor had lectured on Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863; see Figure 3), only to refuse to discuss the conspicuous presence of the black maid, I would be quite a wealthy woman today. Noting the historical compulsion to erase her presence, Lorraine O’Grady has argued that She is the chaos that must be excised, and it is her excision that stabilizes the West’s construct of the female body, for the “femininity” of the white female body is ensured by assigning the not-white to a chaos safely removed from sight.2 While my claim may seem like an extraordinary exaggeration, when art historical discursivity, especially its Modernist permutations,3 is scrutinized for its ability or willingness to accommodate race, my point as a comment on the dominating Eurocentrism of art historical disciplinarity becomes painfully clear. Modernism refers to a cultural movement and a historical moment but, more importantly for art history, to a specifi c artistic practice generally designated by a dominating, often formalistic interest in issues of style and aesthetic concerns. Modernism however must also be acknowledged as a specifi c art historical discourse which dictates the limits of art production and interpretation. Historically western Modernism has privileged painting above all other media and has further privileged aesthetic practices which reinforce and celebrate the two-dimensionality of painting. This explicit focus upon materiality has often elided social, historical, and political issues from the discourse. The Modernism of visual culture has also historically been the exclusive domain of white male artistic production centered around notions of urbanity, voyeurism, and bohemianism. Ironically, Modernism’s obvious dependence upon the bodies of transgressive female subjects (often prostitutes or courtesans) and the appropriation of African, Native, and Oceanic arts has only recently been given critical attention. Manet’s Olympia is not an arbitrary choice on my part. The utter disavowal of race as a valid issue of art historical inquiry is evidenced in T. J. Clark’s otherwise archivally exhaustive chapter on this painting, “Olympia’s Choice.”4 Clark’s social art historical analysis of the painting is fundamentally based upon class identity. Griselda Pollock has noted Clark’s unwillingness to deal with the obvious gender and sex issues which are latent within the painting.5 However, my concern is with his almost complete disregard for the racially “other” subject of the painting-the black maid who is clearly visible. For a student of art history or for the uninitiated, the uncontested value of this painting is indexed by the extent to which scholars of art history need not identify it to their canonically indoctrinated audiences. As Pollock has warned: Canonical art history may be defi ned as a kind of border police, monitoring the visibility of which links, which borrowings, which genealogies are to be acknowledged, while others, become aberrant, ignorant, incorrect or plain invisible.6 Although Manet’s name and the basic formalistic and stylistic concerns of the art object as a seminal painting which marked the celebrated beginnings of western Modernism need not be re-stated, I would argue that what has been consistently disavowed and what needs now to be urgently examined and retrieved is the body of the black female maid, her colonial context, and the psycho-social constraints which have facilitated the erasure of her obvious presence and signifi cance in the fi rst instance. Elaborating upon the focus of her book, Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, and its decidedly post-colonial methodology, Petrine Archer-Straw writes: I was aware that although art historians discussed black culture’s infl uence on the Parisian avant-garde there was no text that looked at the avant-garde’s motivations outside of artistic imperatives. Redressing this imbalance called for an examination of rarely considered tropes within European art history that reinforced negative stereotypes of blacks, especially in respect to primitivism.7 (Italics mine) We need to ask what art historical discourse, especially its Modernist permutations, makes possible and what it suppresses as well as through what logic and apparatus its borders are policed.8 In other words, we need to examine the historical suppression of issues of race, color, and colonialism within art historical discourse and create a space for post-colonial interventions within cultural practice and analysis. Just as feminist interventions have made it possible to discuss gender and sex issues within the context of patriarchy, a post-colonial intervention within art history would privilege discussions of race, color, and culture within a colonial context. A post-colonial art history also creates a space for the discussion of the production of Native, black, Asian, and other traditionally marginalized artists. This intervention would also fundamentally take up representation as a process of identifi cation and therefore position visual culture as colonial discourse, a site where racial identities are produced and deployed. Critical theory, especially feminist interventions, has provided clear and effective strategies for cultural transformation of the traditionally patriarchal disciplinarity of art history.9 However, recent criticism of white feminist practice has contested the extent to which the deployment of an essentializing category of Woman, coupled with the silence around race/color, has re-entrenched the colonial privilege of the white female body. Post-colonial scholarship, particularly its manifestations within cultural studies, is helping to provide the theoretical and material structure for a racial intervention within art history, one that acknowledges culture as a site of colonial discourse and thus as a generative source of racialized identities and racism.10 Post-colonial scholarship has also informed the recent racial interventions within the overwhelmingly colonial discourses of anthropology, ethnography, and museology. Critical contributions to the study of culture have interrogated western colonial histories of exhibition and human display.11 Within the institutionalized museum practices of ethnographic display, human anatomical and skeletal remains often served as “primitivizing” markers of the racial identifi cation of colonial subjects, evidence of the supposed evolutionary inferiority of colonized populations. Exceeding museum practices in their mass appeal to broad middle and lower class populations, the more socially accessible spectacles of fairs, circuses, and open-air exhibitions often replaced skeletal remains with the living bodies of colonized subjects.12 As Rosemary Wiss has argued, “European discourse on the perception of difference was partially informed by exhibits of indigenous people brought back to Europe by colonial scientists and entrepreneurs during the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries.”13 The colonial subject framed within the Eurocentrically biased and artifi cially imposed boundaries of reconstructed and anthropologically “authentic primitive” villages were made to perform their cultures and also, signifi cantly, their races, for the entertainment of white audiences. The colonial practice of human display distanced the white observer, both literally and fi guratively, from the primitivized bodies of colonial subjects. Safely behind the carefully demarcated boundaries of the exhibitions and fairgrounds, the space of the colonial “other” was clearly separated from the privileged space of the white viewer/ “self.” The deliberately cultivated material and psychic distance was a part of the colonial apparatus which visually objectifi ed the exhibited human subjects and racialized the bodies of the exhibition spectators.

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