The cover of Robin Coste Lewis’ book, Voyage of the Sable Venus features a Harlem Renaissance era photo of a slim black woman standing on a sidewalk deep in thought. With one hand resting on her hip and the other cradling her chin, the woman is pondering what lies behind the glass window in front of her. It’s a classic “looking at art” pose. Lewis’ book of poetry is an autobiographical examination of identity that raises important questions about how other’s perceptions of us influence how we see ourselves. In art history the portrait is a fundamental artistic exploration of perception, and in CAAM’s show Face to Face, we are offered a glimpse into black portraiture that reclaims and redefines blackness. I recently read Lewis’ poem and took note of how one complimented the other. Face to Face offers a visual epilogue to the journey in Voyage of Sable Venus; both the show and the poem ask the same fundamental question: Where is the black body in art history? Robin Coste Lewis specifically explores the black female body in art history and her journey starts with the title of the book and its namesake poem.
Her poem, Voyage of the Sable Venus rests at the center of the book and it tracks the symbolic voyage of the black female figure throughout art history. The poem is written with prose comprised entirely from the titles and historical descriptions of art that featured black female form. Reading the poem, we quickly learn that the prevailing nomenclature used to describe the black female body was often reductive, just as the artwork itself relegated black women to servants, accessories, and objects of desire. The descriptions rendered these women as either invisible or voiceless.