Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West. January 17-20, 2013 - Paris, France

'The Merchant of Venice' by Kiluanji Kia Henda, 2010
Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West, is the fifth in a series of conferences organized by Harvard University and NYU since 2004. The theme of this year’s conference is on the black body in the west. NYU faculty, international scholars, students, and invited guests will together explore new ways to discuss images and experiences of how the black body is imagined in the West. The conference is free but registration is required.

How might we understand the expansive experiences from historical perceptions and contemporary art? Conference participants will unite across diverse disciplines and topics through a shared commitment to analyzing the body politics.

How the black body has been imagined in the West has always been a rich site for global examination and contestation. The representation and depiction of black peoples often has been governed by prevailing attitudes about race and sexuality. From the ubiquitous Renaissance paintings of blacks as the “other” positioned as the sublime backdrop or purposely attracting the lustful gaze of the other, to the recent French Elle magazine article on First Lady Michelle Obama’s sense of style finally filtering down to the fashion-strapped black masses, to the Italian Vogue special issue on African fashion, there is evidence that discussion of the black body remains relevant.

How the black body is displayed and viewed changes with each generation constantly allowing young diasporic generations from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, the U.K., Middle East, and the Caribbean to add their own dimensions to explore ideas about reinvention and self-representation. The universality of black culture and its global presence has played a leading role in mainstream sports, music, fashion and the performing and visual arts with implications worthy of much critique.

Paris, an internationally key and highly influential Western space in all things concerning the arts and modernity, is the perfect stage for Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West, the fifth in a series of conferences organized by Harvard University and NYU since 2004. The event is the result of an international collaboration between the Department of Photography & Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the Institute for African American Affairs, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, and NYU Paris. This year, our collaborators also include Cornell University, Musée du quai Branly, FSHM, L’Ecole Nationalae Superieure des Beaux Arts, and NYU Paris.


  1. Thanks for alerting us to what sounds like an interesting conference on ways to discuss images and experiences of how the black body is imagined in the West.

    The Racialicious blog just published this related post:

    I wrote a comment on that article's discussion thread questioning what seemed to me the assumption that Black people should be against "blackamoor brooches" because they represented White characterization of the Black body as a showpiece for White wealth. I had never heard of "blackamoor brooches" before reading that article. But I learned from that article that not all of those brooches depicted "jolly servants who tried to please" White folks. Indeed, one of the brooches described in the article was of a Black man whose "His deep-set eyes peer with determination, and his facial expression beams with masculine dignity...the embedded black opal in his body is an essential piece in the armor of a decorated general. This blackamoor answers to no master."

    I gathered from the article that the opposition to these blackamoor brooches isn't necessarily how they look, but what they represented/represent to those who wear and collect them - the Black face & Black body as someone [something] exotic, the Black body as a showpiece for White wealth.

    I wondered if Black people could reclaim the concept of these works of art probably calling those jeweled pins with a Black face something other than "blackamoor" since that referent now has a lot of negative connotations.

    It will be interesting to see what if any responses there might be to the point I tried to make.

  2. I agree with you Azizi that the concepts that informed the original works could certainly be reclaimed and readjusted in a way that is uplifting, inspiring and empowering. Black people have come far enough to where we have the power (BUYING POWER) to re-define and re-fashion as we choose.

    1. This reminds me my own endeavors. Throughout my travels, and especially in Europe where racist images and caricatures of black bodies run rampant, I try to purchase (if I can) and collect anything that right off the bat "startles" my sensibilities! lol

      I first began doing this because 1.) I wanted to show my American friends (whose jaws I knew would hit the floor) just how stilted and archaic white European racism was. And also 2.) those images ("darky iconography," toys, posters, stamps, lunch boxes, candy) embarrassed me and made me self conscious and so I thought that if I were to remove them "from the shelves," I'd be sparing my people a few less indignities.

      But two things happened to alter my perception. The first was a Whoopi Goldberg interview where she discussed her "negrobilia," a collection of "darky" iconography that she kept in her home as a reminder of how people once saw us and how far we've come. That resonated. The second experience was when I saw this REALLY old Aunt Jemima poster in a small town in the Czech Republic. The first thing I thought was, "my God, she looks just like my Grand (great grandma)." At first it made me chuckle. But then it made me uncomfortable and then angry. So I started thinking about it.

      I thought about one of my great grandmothers who at one time in her life worked in the kitchen of a wealthy white family during the 1920s in Chicago. On the surface, she embodied the "Aunt Jemima" stereotype. She was full figured, Opal colored with a gorgeous smile, delightful, wise, charismatic and took no junk. She had hardly been educated yet she was very sharp, quick witted and most importantly, knew her way around a kitchen. So YES, in many ways literally and figuratively, she was a "mammy" to the family she took care of.

      But BEYOND that, she was a disenfranchised, marginalized black woman who was simply using her natural talents to support her family and make the most out of the options she was provided. Yes, she smiled, cow-towed and praised the family she worked for from 5am to 7pm but rolled her eyes, back-handed and trash talked from 7pm to 5am! lol And when she wasn't doing that, she was a preacher, a community organizer, and an entrepreneur. This "mammy" was able to send both of her children to college on her sheer ingenuity alone.

      Many African Americans today (including myself at one point) might find the work my great grandmother did to be beneath them, shameful and reminiscent of slavery and servitude which we are EVER seeking to forget, diminish and counter. We may love and acknowledge the "mammies" in our own lives but still be embarrassed by what they represent in the collective mind, culture and history of the United States.

      The "mammies" that we have loved had their likenesses "grotesquely" exaggerated and then commodified; they were forever ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist of America MASKED in caricatures, stereotypes, half-truths, and flat out lies. (LIGHTBULB). Those stereotypes are nothing but MASKS: covers designed to warp, distort, entertain and frighten. But there were REAL people like my great grandmother with REAL, FULLY imagined personalities, dreams, lives, and stories behind those masks. So now, when I see racist images and caricatures, I try to think of the real people BEHIND those images. And I think of them paying their dues, suffering for their progeny and bearing ridicule and humiliation just so my black a** can be a doctor, lawyer or the President of the United States. So, my "darky" iconography no longer shames me like it used to. In echoing Whoopi Goldberg's sentiments, it keeps me humble, reminding me of the indignities suffered by my ancestors for MY well-being and future. And at the same time, it keeps me fiercely motivated to fulfill my potential while SHATTERING the "images" and limitations of old and re-creating new images that tell a fuller, more balanced story.

    2. BlkViking,
      You brother are full of insight & power!

      I love that you share your memories, experiences, and opinions on this blog, but (and so) when are you going to ALSO share them on your own blog?

      I say that because, unfortunately, blog comments are difficult to categorize and access and comments like the one above about your Great Grandmother and the
      "We wear the mask" mammy is POWERFUL and needs more exposure, and shouldn't be lost on the internets.

      If you don't have a blog yet, please start one - the Google format is an option as it's so easy to do that even I did it without any outside assistance. But you can contact me via the email that given on my pancocojams blog if you'd like.

    3. As he knows, I've been telling him to write a book, an autobiography, a volume of essays; SOMETHING to get all those personal anecdotes and observations shared with a wider audience. He's the new James Baldwin of our day!

      And while I have readers' attention:
      I would like to apologize, openly, for not coming to "BlkViking's" defense when he was being raked over the coals. NO! He is NOT the same "BlkViking" mentioned on the online dating sites. NO! He is not 49 years old---he's much, much younger. He's a "young'n" of just 30 years. THIRTY, NOT 49! And no! He does not reside in Texas. Faaaaar from it. He lives in New York City. And lastly, he by no way, shape, or form is a "swapper" or even interested in any type of so-called "polyamorous" activity. I've had the pleasure of e-mailing with him and I can assure all: What you read IS what you get." He IS the real deal. A good human being! Great morals! And TOTALLY dedicated to the upliftment of ALL who suffer. We need more like "BlkViking".

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