Compelling Visuality: The Work Of Art In And Out Of History

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Isolated from her original geographical and genealogical contexts, the black woman has come to represent whatever is projected onto her by the artist, her contemporaries, and by present-day viewers. Griselda Pollock has put a different spin on the display of flesh within the historical context of slavery and has suggested that Benoist's painting visually references the slave auction block, "where naked men and women were exposed to the calculating gazes of their would-be owners, who checked their teeth, felt their muscles and fondled their genitals to make sure of a good buy.

Pollock also notes that the sitter's hand is placed near her genitals, drawing attention to that area and visually alluding to the Venus Pudica typology in which the gesture to cover the breasts and genitalia have the adverse effect of drawing increased attention to them. If this is indeed what is happening, then the black woman's gesture of protection may well be the only agency, albeit subtle, she is accorded.

As well, they constitute visible markers of white woman's command over black woman's labor. By focusing on the black woman's corporality and by juxtaposing dark skin with white cloth, Benoist has directed attention to black woman's otherness in the realm of the visual, the physical, and the social. Art historian Griselda Pollock has outlined the history and semiotic significance of the headwrap in context of the formulaic appearance of black women in European visualizations of Orientalist and Africanist fantasy.

She has described the headwrap as "a highly specific signifier. Helen Foster has asserted that " white French women knew of the West African headwrap from written descriptions and from pictorial illustrations. It has been suggested that an Arabic influence is possible and that the headwrap derived from the male turban. If this is true, then the link supports the element of exoticism ascribed to Benoist's image and its potential association with Orientalist representational practices.

It serves as an imposed mark of one's status as enslaved laborer. It was of practical use to prevent infestation of lice and other scalp diseases. And it was useful in absorbing perspiration during work. In the Caribbean and in the American South, the headwrap took on a function as "a uniform of communal identity " that encoded resistance to one's enslaved condition. In the case of Benoist's portrait, the headwrap may operate as an instrument of identity and rebellion, even though its very presence here also serves as a signifier of difference imposed upon the sitter by a privileged white woman whose own sense of identity depended on black woman's labor, physical submission, and forced anonymity.

The headwrap was not, however, the exclusive domain of black women. With several self-portraits, such as one from fig. The headwrap communicates to the viewer that the artist is laboring. The relationship between the headwrap, women's work specifically, the manufacture and cleaning of cloth , and black servitude are noteworthy aspects of Benoist's portrait.

Compelling Visuality: The Work Of Art In And Out Of History

The black woman constitutes an acquired item among luxury goods. Corresponding with and complementing the headwrap as a "badge of enslavement" in Benoist's portrait is the visual approximation of the headgear with the Phrygian cap of liberty. The allusion to the Phrygian cap is underscored by visual comparison of Benoist's painting with images produced just before and immediately after the emancipation decree of in which blacks wear headwraps that correlate visually with the Phrygian cap as a signifier of the enfranchised slave figs.

The historical significance and development of the Phrygian cap iconography and its correlation with republican notions of liberty have been analyzed by Yvonne Korshak, who has noted that the cap itself became a popular and instantly recognizable image in France during and immediately after the French Revolution.

Another relevant tidbit about the Phrygian cap revealed by Korshak that is significant to one possible meaning behind Benoist's portrait is that its origins, also traced back to Greek art, reveal that it was used to represent the people of Phrygia and, by extension, came to stand for anyone from exotic regions. As the cap of "foreigners," the Phrygian cap also "appeared on alien captives and became a recognized symbol of the prisoner. Although Korshak neglects to mention it, the Phrygian cap was typically worn by men, not by women. In relationship to the cap's suggestive classical and exotic symbolism in Benoist's painting, the fact that the Phrygian cap became a signifier associated with the enfranchisement of male slaves only, supports my argument that Benoist consciously employed masculinist tropes and symbolic gestures in order to empower and communicate meaning germane to women.

So, in painting a portrait of a black woman, Benoist had a host of allegories and historical occurrences from which to draw upon that carry the significance and conceptual impact of her image beyond mere display of aesthetic virtuosity alone. I propose that Benoist made conscientious and pointed use of meaningful allegories and symbolizations in a period when gains from the Revolution that were thought to benefit women and blacks, no matter how seemingly minor, were being eroded. Some contemporary observers might perceive the painting's allusion to the Phrygian cap of liberty, as well as the exposed breast, not as subversive strategy as I have suggested, but as evidence of "displaced cultural manifestations of the exclusion of women from political life.

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However, she also points out that even though the Revolution did deny women these rights, it also "opened up new possibilities for political and economic activity by women which can not be measured simply in terms of legal political rights granted by bourgeois legislation. It was her best means of repudiating the anti-feminist and racist policies of her day while working within the culturally sanctioned, male-dominated domain of art production.

By "visuality," I refer to the ways in which discursive concepts and codes such as race get caught up and circulated within the domain of the visual. Viewer identities and identifications are engaged and are put into conflict. The dynamics of viewing and the erotics of the gaze are played out among three protagonists: the black sitter, the unseen white artist, and the contemporary viewer. The tensions produced by these players in multiple gazes are highlighted in the crisscrossing dynamics of seeing, being seen, and not being seen. Benoist's painting is about viewer location and it raises the question of exactly who is looking at whom and how the viewer identifies with the subject viewed.

It is a work that engages both history and contemporary viewership in that it speaks to the social, political, and psychosexual nuances of "race," gender, and colonial desire in the act of looking. I want to briefly enter into this web of visual exchange to tease out what I see as complex and multiple positionalities that force an analysis of the portrait from critical perspectives that do not necessarily adhere to a reliance upon empirical readings of history alone.

Discourses about the gaze typically concern issues of pleasure and knowledge, power, manipulation, and desire. There are additional complicating networks of looking and power relationships at work here. In most feminist theories of the gaze, the power of the look is erotically inscribed.

It is men who supposedly possess the power of the gaze and, as such, women are subjected to it and reduced to objects. Women become, like slaves, commodities or "capitalist objects of [possession and] symbolic exchange. However, recent scholarship in areas outside art history, in particular cinema and performance studies, has suggested that there are alternate gazes irrespective of gender that reorder the importance of the visual and produce more fluid forms of subjectivity.

With Benoist's portrait, the one-on-one confrontation propels us into a visual and emotional entanglement with the black woman. In this instance, the nature of one of many possible dialogic exchanges occurring between viewer and viewed stresses the play between the optical and the tactile.

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Both define what is seen as an object and both are underscored by the sensual rendering of smooth flesh set in visual and tactile contrast with fabric. Here is a perfect moment of what Martin Jay has called "ocular desire" or "erotic projection in vision," where "the bodies of the painter and viewer [are] forgotten in the name of an allegedly disincarnated, absolute eye.

Robert Young has convincingly argued that the majority of colonial representations are pervaded by images "of transgressive sexuality. This is not to say that Benoist or the sitter was homosexual, but it does force one to consider the ways in which same-sex wants, needs, and desires can be generated and circulated in the interracial colonial gaze. Because of its dialogic charge, the gaze forces us to assume that the relationship between Benoist, the black woman, and the contemporary viewer is one in which there is a struggle occurring in terms of power and hierarchy.

She is forever othered, forever locked into a "crushing objecthood. Benoist's portrait forces the one observed the black woman into a state of "permanent invisibility," while the state of the observer Benoist and the assumed white viewer , although not technically present in the painting, is pronounced. This is the opposite of the typical panoptic model that emphasizes the subjective effects of imagined scrutiny and "permanent visibility" on the observed, but fails to explore the subjectivity of the observer. Indeed, the historical realities of slavery and colonialism in the year would have rendered the gaze upon the black woman as clearly subjugating rather than as a gaze of mutual equality.

Despite the fact that women would have also seen this work at the annual exhibition, it was subject to critical readings such as those by Boutard largely determined by a predominantly male community. I think Benoist had this reality of the contemporary moment well in mind when she started the portrait.

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Hal Foster has acknowledged the menacing aspect of the gaze, referring to it as part of "a politics of sight" where "menace is a social product, determined by power, and not a natural fact. When this happens, as it does in Benoist's portrait, the question of where the subject resides surfaces. All three participants artist, sitter, and viewer constitute viewing subjects. Where each resides is constantly shifting. Each is the result of changing locales of subjective and intersubjective formation since multiple identifications and positionings can be associated with the gaze. This is to say that viewing subjects Benoist and the contemporary viewer , their objects of vision the black woman , and the dynamics of visual exchange that operate among them, are complexly produced.

Conclusion Even though Benoist's painting is aesthetically successful and technically proficient, and although her work constituted an attempt "to locate [herself through] an African woman [as surrogate] in political [and artistic] modernity," the ultimate result was, I believe, a political failure.

While attempting to negotiate the scientific and aesthetic codes associated with the depiction of blacks and women, Benoist ended by catering to the status quo desires of men. Her attempt to create a historical and moral style on combined feminine and masculine terms succumbed to the masculinist mode and formal strategies she employed. Benoist's portrait is part of high culture that is positioned against feminism. High culture tends to exclude the knowledge of women artists produced within feminism, and also works in a phallocentric system of signification in which woman, whether white or black, is reduced to a sign within the discourse on masculinity.

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  8. The ambivalence of agency and identity for both women and blacks has always been a significant part of the equation of modernity. In this respect, both Benoist and her black subject have something in common. It is this struggle that helps chart and define modernity and its ambivalences of agency. The significance of the re presentation and reinvention of a black woman by a white woman artist at the very beginning of the nineteenth century in France is intimately and ultimately connected with the workings of patriarchal power in society.

    In the end, both Benoist and her "negress" were slaves to a male-dominated culture. However, the same portrait also exposes the cold reality of the oppression of blacks and women at the dawn of the nineteenth century in that both sitter and painter represent victims caught in a system fostering subordination and erasure of that system's oppressed members even in the face of their attempts to assert themselves. Foot Notes: Unless otherwise indicated, translations are by the author. See Ann S. Benoist was forced to abandon her career because her husband received from the restored Bourbon government a high profile appointment.

    Her mother was concerned about her daughter's professional and personal persona and put pressure on her to quit painting. Art historian Gen Doy points out that Benoist was a victim of a bourgeois ideology that maintained that women should not have a public presence in French cultural life. As a result, many women were dissuaded from starting a career as an artist. See Doy, Women and Visual Culture,, p. For example, as recently as , the British art historian Hugh Honour saw Benoist's portrait as "the most beautiful portrait of a black woman ever painted.

    All persons of African descent were viewed as distinctly non-French. When represented in art, blacks were typically and immediately classed into the de-personalized category of "exotic" or "oriental. On the visual and theoretical dynamics of racial obfuscation and periodic inclusion in works of high modernism and popular culture in the late nineteenth-century, see James Smalls, "'Race' As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture," French Historical Studies 26, no.

    See Honour, Image of the Black, , p. Other biographical details of the life of Benoist are also derived from Ballot, Because he was a member of the royal cabinet, Benoist's father was, on one occasion, brought before a police board of inquiry to ascertain how much his daughter was involved in royalist plots to save the royal family from execution. Benoist herself was questioned and released, for the police were really more interested in the affairs of her husband. For more than a year Benoist was constantly followed and put under surveillance by the police, see Ballot, , p.

    Ballot , p. Prior to the temporary abolition of slavery in , the laws governing the legal status of colonial slaves brought onto French soil was ambiguous. However, once on continental French soil, a slave's status changed to that of servant and he or she could legally petition for liberty. For a history of the social status and legal complexities of slaves brought into France proper during the late eighteenth century, see Shelby T. Harris and Nochlin, , p.

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    The only monograph dedicated to Benoist and her work is by Ballot, Margaret A. For an expanded discussion of this painting in the context of the interests and social status of nineteenth-century women artists, see Doy, Women and Visual Culture,, pp. Pollock, , p. I borrow this idea from Tamar Garb who used it in the context of the much later images of masculinity produced by Gustave Caillebotte. During the nineteenth century, the definitions of these terms, along with the designations "esclave slave " and "noir Black ," tended to shift according to historical and political circumstances.

    Girodet," Res 26 Autumn , pp. Also see Weston, "Portrait du citoyen Belley", , pp. For Belley's biography and politically active significance in postrevolutionary France, see Weston, "Representing the Right to Represent", Also see Schmidt-Linsenhoff, , pp. Weston "Portrait du citoyen Belley", , p. Barthes' evacuation thesis was also a "critique of the ideology of mastery, for which the visual field was seen as the predominant site," see Jacqueline Rose, "Sexuality and Vision: Some Questions," in Hal Foster, ed.

    Art historian Griselda Pollock has chimed in on this very point in accusing modern feminist scholars of putting black women through the ordeal of display as a result of their the feminists' desire, indeed need, to "excavate a history of women artists" as a means to secure "the cause of European women's creativity. We estimate around circus professionals working in Finland, both performing and teaching circus skills. Today everybody talks about it. Quick fashion leads to quick consumption: Timo Rissanen, a professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, is convinced that fashion houses can create clothing while also conserving resources and preserving nature.

    People in Finland sure like a good festival, and the Finnish capital conveniently offers a whole bunch of them in August, when the Helsinki Festival and its partner events seem to be everywhere in the city. What sports do they watch in Finland? What classes do they attend? Originally from Portland, Ore.

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    5. But much of her family remains on the West Coast, including her mother, also named Carrie, her daughter, Faith, and many aunts, uncles and cousins. Soon she was turning the lens on herself to address questions of representation. In the art world, too, Weems has always been before her time, and this has made her a singularly eloquent witness to the shifting landscape of race and representation. The sitters are African-Americans, former slaves, many of them depicted naked or half naked, as anthropological specimens. Weems reproduced the images, staining them blood-red and encircling the subjects so that they appear to be held captive by the lens.

      Compelling Visuality [the Work of Art in and Out of History]

      Providing a context for understanding the historical use of those photographs and then subverting it, she restores tenderness and humanity to the subjects. Even the way the series has been received illustrates the glacial pace of progress: Harvard, which initially threatened to sue Weems over the use of images from its archive, later ended up acquiring a portion of the series for its collection. Photography can enslave and revictimize, Weems has shown us; it can also, potentially, set us free from our inherited bias and expectations.

      The figure — a testament to exclusion, longing for admission — challenges the idea of art made by white men as being the only art in Western culture capable of speaking to our common humanity. Her model, rather, is about curating a flexible, conversation-oriented space that reflects the community, in which real civic engagement might happen. For Weems, who grew up in one of the few black families in Portland, the child of a large she is the second of seven children , close-knit family of sharecroppers who had migrated from Mississippi, that was never the case.

      So he used all of that to make sure that his family was taken care of. Other memories of that time in her youth have come back, too: of arriving home from school to find her mother weeping in front of the television after Kennedy was shot; of reading Martin Luther King Jr. It depicts three girls at that age dressed in vintage dresses and flower crowns. The girl in the center, whose name, Weems tells me, is Jessica — Weems noticed her on the streets of Syracuse with her mother and approached them to ask if Jessica might model for her — looks directly out at us, warily, fearlessly.

      What do they pass on to one another? The same intensity and the same kind of hair. Her father gave her another, equally crucial kind of permission. I was about 4 or 5. That no matter who messes with you, you pick up the biggest stick that you can, and you fight back with it. You are greater than no other man. So, if I arrive at some sort of big, fancy gala, I always feel really comfortable. But nothing was straightforward for Weems, who left home at 17, following her best friend, the film director Catherine Jelski, to San Francisco, where the choreographer Anna Halprin invited her to join her modern dance company.

      Later, Weems earned degrees from California Institute of the Arts and University of California, San Diego, where she lived with the artist Lorna Simpson , another longtime friend, and she also studied folklore at U. But equally, if not more essential, was a different, more intuitive kind of education gleaned from self-study, reading and youthful misadventures, including a memorable trip to East Berlin where she was mistaken for Angela Davis.

      It was too soon; she needed work and child care. Looking through the Black Photographers Annual, she saw her future in artists — mostly men — who looked like her, who were doing the kind of work she wanted to be doing, and in , she tried New York again. While studying photography at the Studio Museum in Harlem, she made money as a Kelly Girl — a kind of temp worker — and later as an assistant to the photographer Anthony Barboza. Literature, too, helped her imagine her way into the world — I notice books by George Saunders and Mario Vargas Llosa on her reading table.