Portraits of Bias: Art, Science, and the Violence in Depictions of Black Women's Bodies

by Kirti Koushika

Visual conventions in art have a significant impact on how we perceive and communicate knowledge and transmit ideas. Iconography is the use of pictures or systems that are intrinsically tied to certain meanings, and icons serve as creative representations to capture the attention of the public. However, depicting an individual as art may not result in an objective picture of the individual, but rather in divisions and inconsistencies in viewpoints. As a result of such divisions, new groups are formed in which a simplified and frequently biased perspective is developed in the form of stereotypes, drawing the viewer’s attention to the relationship between the individual and the overarching attributes associated with their socioeconomic class. This highlights how art not only communicates but also changes our society’s perceptions, highlighting the significance of evaluating its impact critically.

In Gilman’s work, Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature, individual realities are given mythic importance and these manifest as icons that represent perceived attributes of the group to which the individual belongs. These myths are fragments of the social reality and their perception is highly impacted by the viewer’s ideological inclinations.  The combination of these stereotypes, in turn, solidifies and crystallises into the greater society’s collective perspective. Stereotypes based on class, race, and gender roles frequently go unrecognised and unquestioned, maintaining themselves via historical continuity which reproduces itself as ideology. Throughout history, comparisons between Europeans and other groups were made to establish differences between “human” characteristics. The concept of sexuality and beauty, specifically for women, served as major indicators of class and racial superiority (Gilman, 1985). Such deeply rooted prejudices and historical structures impact our impressions of individuals and groups while also contributing to the commodification and objectification of women, constructing fragile identities of women.

In many ways, women have been the central characters in the iconography in the fields of art and medicine and their bodies have acted as a representation of the perception of the larger worldview. Especially in Western societies, the female body is perceived as a sexualized object in art as well as in medicine and science and has been considered a passive object to be studied and analysed in these fields (Cronje, 2001). This was observed in the period of the early 19th century when descriptive accounts of the bodies of Black women, focused predominantly on the “anomaly of their hypersexual” genitals. At the time, the Black community was already termed ‘barbaric’ and ‘savages’, with the European perspective, saying they possessed inferior faculties based on the assumption that they were racially different, unintelligent, animal-like, pagan and uncivilised. Hence women in such a politically and racially charged environment were subdued as the idea of sexual subjugation of the female body became a weapon to humiliate the community. 

Steatopygia is a physical condition with an accumulation of huge amounts of fat on the buttocks and thighs, notably common among the Khoikhoi and others in southern Africa. This condition was first anatomized by the physicians who dissected Sara Baartman, a South African woman who performed as ‘Hottentot Venus’ in the early nineteenth century and other African women and remains a recurring theme in the medical, physiological, and anthropological literature of the 19th century, as well as in depictions in arts and in literary works of women sexualised by their race and their professions like prostitutes and cabaret dancers (Derbew, 2019). The illustration of Hottentot Venus is the primary example of how the commodification of the body occurred to pursue medical research and create art and how the formation of women’s bodies as a site of violence occurred. It was assumed that if medical fallacies were produced against Black people, it was accepted as true because of the scientific context attached to it.

In his work, Gilman uses Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, as a protagonist in showing how medical, literary, and scientific discourses work to construct images of racial and sexual differences. Hottentot Venus was a Khoi woman named Sarah Baartman, born in 1789. She spent the majority of her life as a spectacle, was made to stand naked at parties of wealthy people and was made to impersonate a chained animal (Gilman, 1985). She was brought to Europe in 1810 by a surgeon named Dr. William Dunlop Bartmann who promised to send her to England and compensate her after five years of service for her exhibition. Khoi women were known to have large buttocks that were medically referred to as ‘steatopygia’ and this feature was attributed to their hyper-sexualisation (Tuvel, 2011). These women were dehumanized for their features and body structures, depicting the obsession surrounding their bodies as a clear denial of sexual attraction towards them.

As per Harriet Washington, Bartmann was frequently “displayed nude or bedecked in animal skins” and “she was made to stand naked at wealthy parties and to impersonate a chained animal in garish Piccadilly, where the mob paid a shilling a head to gape and shout vulgarities” (Washington, 2006). As Sarah’s body was associated with animality, attention to her quickly shifted from being an object of entertainment to an object of scientific investigation. At the time, there was little differentiation between primates and Blacks and she provided the missing link in the great chain of being, the key step between humanity, that is Europeans, and animals”. Works also highlight how Baartman depicted in a grotesquely hyper-sexual manner and embodied the boundary between man and animal. After her untimely death at the age of 27 due to alcoholism, she was still exploited during her post-mortem wherein her brain and genitals were removed for preservation and her skeleton was displayed in the museum marking the inhuman treatment towards Baartman as her body became a ‘specimen’ rather than a human. 

In the segment of arts, historical paintings of the female nude, specifically of the neoclassical era, have served to contain and control the sexuality of the female body. Such paintings functioned purely to titillate male viewers and often illustrated a loss of autonomy in the female subject. These women are portrayed as passive, submissive, and as an object, to be moulded according to a man’s visual desire. Baartman wasn’t the only Black woman subjected to exhibitionism and objectification, but she became an icon of the development of theories of racial difference in the 19th century.  A mixture of fear and desire that the white male European beheld the ‘Hottentot Venus’ was a similar combination that led to the fetishization of Black bodies and stereotypical notions, compelling many women to fall prey to such experimentation and leading their exploitation. 

The themes emerging from this grotesque incident led to the construction of the black female as the embodiment of sex and their inherent invisibility where they are reduced to voiceless, primitive beings and everything that is not ‘white’. Gilman criticizes the prevalent racist view that linked black people’s skin colour and physiognomy to congenital leprosy, a pseudoscientific notion used to dehumanise them. This ideology not only marginalised black people but also perpetuated damaging gender stereotypes by depicting black women as moral and physical corruptors. The above arguments acknowledge the interconnectedness of race and gender, emphasising the double burden of discrimination that black women experience and the utilisation of pseudoscientific theories to justify racism and sexism, on the social construction of race and gender, which led to the evolution of a ‘culture of dissemblance’ and the ‘politics of silence’ by Black women on the issue of their sexuality, as later seen in the Black Feminist movement. Thus, black women’s bodies became a site of exploitation in art and science and have served to reinforce harmful stereotypes and objectification throughout history. This analysis emphasises the importance of critically assessing notions, as it allows us to question ingrained biases even today.

Bibliography

Cronje, K. (2001, March). The female body as a spectacle in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western art. Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Stellenbosch. https://scholar.sun.ac.za/items/0694a3aa-1293-4aee-85ae-3e3447b4d127

Derbew, S. (2019). (Re)membering Sara Baartman, Venus, and Aphrodite. Classical Receptions Journal, 11(3), 336–354. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1093/crj/clz008

Gilman, S. (1985). Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature. Critical Inquiry.

Tuvel, R. (2011). “Veil of Shame”: Derrida, Sarah Bartmann and Animality. Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 9(1/2). 

Washington, H. A. (2006), Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, New York: Doubleday

Author’s Bio:

I’m Kirti Koushika, a 25-year-old legislative researcher with a passion for delving into the intricacies of gender, the informal sector, migration, and public policies. I am deeply intrigued by the multifaceted intersections within the realm of social sciences and am committed to exploring and understanding these dynamic connections.

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