#BLM, Arts, Venue

The unheeded Black muses of art history

Black subjects in fine art have often been overlooked by art historians’ Eurocentric focus on White subjects. In Western art, Black figures integral to our history have been grossly underrepresented. The descriptions of paintings which do feature Black subjects often outrageously belittle their significance, and sometimes even leave them unidentified. Black subjects have also historically been symbolically misinterpreted to purport racial stereotyping. This, according to critic Paterson Joseph, is a result of the racism “institutionalised in our most prestigious art establishments”.

Joseph and others have called into question the largely tradition-orientated curatorship in Western galleries and museums, which both conforms to and promotes focus on White subjects and the erasure of Black identities in art history. This, Joseph states, creates a “racially-biased circle”, in which scholars are encouraged to concentrate on White subjects and, these contributions to the discourse of art history, in turn encourage such racial bias for future scholars and art audiences.

Take Manet’s Olympia (1863). Historically, scholars have focussed on the identity of the White female subject and Manet’s controversial inclusion of a prostitute in a portrait intended for the prudish eyes of his Victorian audience. However, in recent years, scholars and Black feminists have called for the spotlight to be turned to illuminate the identity of Olympia’s Black maid, who Manet assertively placed almost on a parallel plane with Olympia at the centre of the painting. 

Although it has been much disputed, modern Black feminists and academics have reinterpreted Manet’s placement to be a statement about the two women’s equality and parallelism: both the White prostitute and the Black maid are maltreated by an oppressive society. They are therefore united in their persecution. Additionally, Manet’s depiction of the maid is, notably, not a hyperbolic, exoticised caricature that characterised typical Victorian representations of Black women as “other”. Manet’s depiction of the maid in contemporary, modest clothing is indicative of the artist’s progressive attitude, as is the maid’s empowerment through the overt display of her occupation. 

However, such integral aspects of Manet’s painting, along with many other works throughout Western art history, have been widely overlooked by those wishing to further a White-washed historical narrative, or those who have unknowingly conceded to these ways of projecting art history.

In Lorraine O’Grady’s essay entitled Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity, she focuses on such progressive reinterpretations of works such as Manet’s, which include Black female muses. She believes, like Joseph, there exists great potential for social re-education and progression in the dismantling of racially biased art networks and modes of display/analysis. O’Grady writes, “social change cannot happen without the reorientation of the systems that exist to subjugate Black people.” Art institutions exist within these systems of racial oppression.

Art, through its documentation, curation, reinterpretation and teaching, shapes the way we view our pictorial historical narrative. Without understanding the symbolic power of figures suchas Manet’s maid, which empower and legitimise the positions and identities of Black women in our society, we cannot consider the art world to be free from bias. Paintings such as Manet’s may appear to depict a time that seems worlds apart from ours today, but until the art world eradicates institutionalised racial bias from its practices, we have not progressed, we are there in the frame with Olympia and her maid, stuck in time.

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Bea Prutton

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August 2022
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