By Zalika Azim

A discussion on the history of blackamoors at the Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories conference, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

“The world is a mass of intractable ills on which art must shed light…. This is not the time for art as an object of contemplation or delight, much less a market commodity—certainly not in a public exhibition whose chief responsibility is to stimulate debate.” –Roberta Smith

A discussion on the history of blackamoors at the Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories conference, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

It seems that, during my enrichment trip to Italy last month, I embarked not just on an eight-hour flight, but on a metaphorical passage through history. Hoping to investigate how historical and contemporary artists have confronted notions of race and engaged in conversations about the social, cultural, financial, and environmental transformations taking place across the globe, I visited Florence to view the Black Portraiture

[s] II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories conference and see the exhibition ReSignifications.

The conference was the sixth in a series that began in 2005, when Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University and Deborah Willis of New York University sought to collectively investigate methods for bridging the gap between art history and art making. Over the course of four days, international and intergenerational intellectuals and artists gathered to consider the role that visual arts, film, literature, and music play in structuring Western culture’s image of the black body. As MoMA has begun to make prominent strides toward further incorporating work by artists of the African diaspora into its collection, partly through its ambitious C-MAP programs and affiliate groups like the Latin American Fund and Friends of Education, I hoped to add my experience to the pool of initiatives aimed at opening up discourse on how we can continue to draw meaningful connections between past, present, and future art practice and theory. By presenting and engaging with sonic histories and performances, many of the panels I attended complemented—and complicated—visual representations of blackness in historical and contemporary Western art.

In preparation for the exhibition ReSignifications, in 2012 curator Awam Amkpa invited artists from the U.S., Africa, and Europe to experience, reinterpret, and respond to the permanent collection of New York University’s Villa La Pietra, bequeathed in 1994 by the Acton family. Among the sculptures and paintings, I found myself taken by the vast range of pieces known today as “blackamoors.” Painted in deep shades of brown (and sometimes black), often depicting elegantly dressed figures engaged in acts of servitude, the sculptural pieces seemed to adorn every room I entered. Standing vigil while serving as doorknobs, illuminating the halls by grasping lamps, bearing trays and cups, holding up tables, they were ever-present, as I imagine they were hundreds of years ago. Walking through the Villa, It was difficult to refrain from drawing connections to the painful history of slavery—in this case, those brought to Italy on Portuguese ships and used as house servants during the Renaissance.

From left: A blackamoor sculpture at the Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence; Vittore Carpaccio. Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto (detail). c. 1496. Tempera on canvas. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Photos by Zalika Azim, 2015

Because of their popularity among European aristocrats beginning in the late 1700s, blackamoors became and continue to function as currency. “People were buying and trading them. They were in the rooms where people were having parties and socializing. These objects became synonymous with what it meant to be an upper middle-class person,” Amkpa noted as he led me and several others on a walk-through of the exhibition during the opening. Showcasing a multiplicity of artists working across mediums, the exhibition set forth to investigate, reframe, and refract today’s objectification of the black body in the context of history.

I could not have ventured to Italy without making a trip to Venice to see, “the grandfather of the global biennale.” Curated this year by the Nigerian scholar and art critic Okwui Enwezor—who, significantly, is the first curator of African descent to organize the Biennale—All the World’s Futures was elegiac, extensive, rich with ideas, and seemingly focused on allowing “the artist as meta-commentator” (to use critic Sean O’Toole’s phrase) to address current events. I was particularly impressed by two works that brought Italy’s immigration conditions to the forefront.

John Akomfrah. Vertigo Sea. 2015. Three-channel, HD video installation, 38 min. Installation view, Venice Biennale, May 9–November 22, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

John Akomfrah. Vertigo Sea. 2015. Three-channel, HD video installation, 38 min. Installation view, Venice Biennale, May 9–November 22, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

In the three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea, John Akomfrah criticizes the whaling industry, the current state of the environment, and our relationship to land and sea while drawing connections to the recent surge of black bodies washing up on the coasts of northern Africa and southern Europe. I found myself in awe of the ways in which Akomfrah engaged questions of memory and identity by using archival material to create film essays and fictional stories that speak to our collective past. His use of the moving image gave voice and fluidity to the legacy of the African diaspora in Europe. Similarly, in the sound installation Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), Emeka Ogboh surrounds viewers with the voices of denied African refugees singing the German national anthem in their mother tongues. The work poses questions around the notion of belonging while offering a new perspective on the artistic and emotional expressions of people who have been marginalized and disregarded.

Emeka Ogboh. Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied). 2015. Installation view, Venice Biennale, May 9–November 22, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

Emeka Ogboh. Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied). 2015. Installation view, Venice Biennale, May 9–November 22, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

As my own reaction to these works moved from the visual to the visceral, I realized how relevant its core issues—exploitation, possession, and belonging—were to the exhibition site itself. This led me to consider whether it is possible to maintain discourse on “the new” without calling on the colonial, panoptical gaze.

Adam Pendleton. Detail of installation view, Belgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 9–November 22, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

Adam Pendleton. Detail of installation view, Belgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 9–November 22, 2015. Photo: Zalika Azim

Despite (or perhaps because of) the myriad emotions I encountered, it seems apparent that the 56th Venice Biennale and Black Portraiture{s} II conference were milestones for postcolonial thought. As a collective, they presented a platform of possibilities in which artists and thinkers are allowed space to consider the instability of the world and how they factor into it or, as Enwezor puts it, “[to regard the] current disquiet that pervades our time,” in their own disjointed idioms.

Read more here:: A Milestone for Postcolonial Thought: Examining Art and Race in Florence and Venice