Posts Tagged ‘Hottentot Venus’

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

In Erykah Badu’s music video for “Window Seat,”[1] a song off of her 2010 LP New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, the African-American R & B singer reclaims black, female subjectivity through bodily performance. She uses her own flesh to protest the threat that “groupthink”[2] poses to authentic and embodied self-expression. In this way Badu accomplishes a task that black feminist and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady commissions the cultural worker to take up in her work; that is, to (re)inscribe the black, female body with new meaning and purpose in order to liberate it from the colonizing  claims of patriarchy and racism on its freedom as a site of agency, autonomy, and movement.[3]

Badu portrays herself in the video as a non-descript pedestrian walking through the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination—the Dealey Plaza Historic District of Downtown Dallas, Texas. The video begins with an image of a white, Lincoln Continental pulling into a parking space alongside the sidewalk bordering Elm Street. A sound recording of the televised broadcast documenting Kennedy’s motorcade to the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon with local politicians and business leaders plays as a kind of introduction to the song itself, which starts to the pattering roll of drumsticks against the snare’s canvas.  To mark the transition from sound footage to song, as well as to structure the video itself as a visual narrative, the camera shows a textual frame that reads: “A Story by Erykah Badu.”  The title sequence then segues into the short film, displaying a frontal view of Badu’s body, almost entirely concealed in clothing, as the singer strides confidently down the historic sidewalk. The camera lens meanwhile blurs the background against which Badu’s body is set like a human bas relief, obscuring images of seemingly perplexed spectators who witness the singer’s gradual denuding by the choice and power of her own will to reveal.

By the time Badu has stripped down to her black underwear, the camera angle shifts and we are presented a picture of Badu’s body from the perspective of both posterior and side views. Scrawled across the top of her back, between her shoulder blades, is the word evolve, written in black, capitalized letters. The song meanwhile progresses towards its final refrain when Badu’s undressed, moving body halts suddenly to the sound of gunfire, and falls to the ground after a back-bending thrust of convulsion at being a bullet’s marked target. As her body lay strewn across the concrete surface at the edge of a grassy knoll, a blue liquid substance spills like blood from her skull, forming the word groupthink.

This is accompanied by the amplified utterance of a male voice shouting the word, “Groupthink!” This sequence segues into a sermonizing coda that Badu offers as a way to thematize and, ultimately, close the piece: “They play it safe. Are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another. They feel most comfortable in groups—less guilt to swallow. They are us. This is what we have become—afraid to respect an individual. A single person within her circumstance can move one to change, to love herself, to evolve.” As this disembodied voice of narration speaks, the camera pans around to show the Dealey Plaza skyline, including a fleeting image of an American flag hanging limply from the top of a tall metal pole. The frame then returns to an image of a resurrected Badu, smiling beneath a braided hairpiece bedecked in jewels, gleaming as though a goddess come down to, or emerging from, earth.

As the video—with its interplay of soundtrack, text, and speech—attests, authentic social critique is a matter of embodied self-expression, something that O’Grady, echoing Indian literary theorist Gayatri Spivak argues is central to the act of deconstruction.[4] By putting her body “on the line” in such a way, as a matter of public display, Badu casts a critical eye on a society that has historically exploited the black (female) body as a means to define racial difference and, ultimately, racial (read: black) inferiority.

Cultural critic Lisa Gail Collins does well to unpack this social phenomenon in her investigation of the “Hottentot Venus”[5]—a derogatory term that references 19th century French zoologist Goerge Cuvier’s exploitative use of South African-born American slave Saartjie Baartman’s body as evidence of difference between the white and black races. Like the African and African-American women Collins’ uplifts in her assessment of various, critical artistic responses (such as that of Tracey Rose below) to the denigration of Baartman’s rotund body—at once contained, observed, dissected and labeled in a manner of “scientific” exploration and pornographic entertainment—Badu resituates and recontexualizes the “Hottentot Venus” as a signifier of radical insubordination of, versus subjection to, the white supremacist logic of racial superiority.

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

She does so by placing herself in the position of Baartman, personifying a 21st century black Venus through the visual medium of music video—a kind of moving portraiture (as filmic picture)—that asserts black, female individuality despite threats of its erasure by “representational colonialism.”[6]

A term coined by cultural critic Brian Wallis, it references the white supremacist gaze to which the black, female body has been held captive in a history of sexual exploitation

that is typified by the 19th century phenomenon of slave photography. Exercised as a way to type and order bodies according to a hierarchy of being in which the Caucasian body—representing the classical Greek ideal of beauty set forth by Enlightenment era art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann[7] –slave photography made use of pictures, originally called “daguerreotypes,” to demarcate the races and generalize the racialized “other” according to features that became associated with inferiority. In this, the myth of white superiority was established as an essentially historical fact through the semblance of realism that photographs portray.[8]

Tracey Rose, Venus Baartman, 2001

Tracey Rose, Venus Baartman, 2001. In this “performance photograph” South African visual artist Tracey Rose, as Nicole Fleetwood notes in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness, “attempts to render a visual depiction of Western fantasies of black femlae savagery and exoticism that were projected onto the body of Baartman” in the 19th century (118ff).

That said, Badu’s bodily performance in the music video functions as an anti-colonial/colonizing stance that restores voice and vision, privilege and power, to the objectified black body. And like Henry “Box” Brown—the ex-slave and Abolitionist made famous for his traveling panorama Mirror of Slavery[9]—Badu plays the role of activist-as-magician in a vanishing act by which she reappears at video’s end as a restored body, moving unabashedly naked in a public space where a political leader sympathetic to the African-American freedom struggle was slain. As cultural inheritor of that struggle, Badu associates herself with the assassinated to highlight the risk involved in speaking truth to power, particularly when it comes to matters of race, gender and sexuality (to say nothing of class). In the end, she uses her performance as an agency claim, conflating body, text, speech, and song as a way to bring a new center of black, female subjectivity into being and ultimately give her that longed-for chance to “fly away.”

[1] For lyrics of and commentary on the song, see:

[2] A term signifying the loss of individual creativity, or sense of personal responsibility, in light of group (or social) interaction. Irving Janis, a research psychologist out of Yale University, is responsible for much of the initial research on this social phenomenon.

[3] See Lorraine O’Grady, “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” Afterimage 2 (1992): 1-23. The full version of “Olympia’s Maid” has since been anthologized several times, most recently in Amelia Jones’s  The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, publ. Routledge. Those wishing to read the article in full may also download it from the WRITING section of O’Grady’s website:

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] See Lisa Gail Collins, “Historical Retrievals: Confronting Visual Evidence and the Imaging of Truth,” The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 12-36.

[6] See Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1995), 54.

[7] See ibid., 52.

[8] See ibid., 48. According to Wallis, author Roland Barthes calls this the “reality effect.”

[9] For more information, see Daphne Brooks, “Escape Artist,” Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006): 66-130.