In MoAD’s ‘Black Venus,’ Artists Reclaim Their Beauty and Autonomy

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Photograph of reclining Black woman looking to right adorned with silver spoons and gold and silver shoes
Ayana V. Jackson, 'The rupture was the story,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim)

When I was first introduced to the concept of Venus in high school, my understanding of the mythological goddess figure was shaped by the romantic lens of European Renaissance painting. This rendition of Venus, with her dreamy, faraway stare, porcelain skin and long, flowing tresses epitomized beauty and grace. But in the late 1700s, caricatured depictions of an enslaved woman, Saartje Baartman, were spread and popularized as “Hottentot Venus,” creating an early example of a fetishized and racist visual representation of Black women.

In Black Venus, a new exhibition on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora until Aug. 20, curator Aindrea Emelife looks towards this piece of lost history while exploring the representation of Black women through the eyes of several contemporary Black artists. With large-scale photographs, collage pieces, self-portraits and moving projections, the exhibition’s various portrayals of Black womanhood collide and coalesce. The timeline they create both preserves the past and generates space for the future.

Each artwork illustrates its own Venus: a video vixen, a queer pageant contestant, the artist themselves. Imaginative and intimate, the exhibition’s pieces are personal reflections on the body, identity and subjugation.

As I walked through MoAD’s quiet gallery space, I was first drawn towards artist Widline Cadet’s On a Clear Day, I Thought I Saw Forever. The consistency offered by the triptych structure is broken up by the subject’s direct stare in the center photo, as they boldly look back at the viewer, posture unchanged. In the piece’s description, Cadet explains that the work is a rumination on the body and desire, and that her awareness of these two issues grew alongside her interests in R&B and hip-hop music.

Three framed black-and-white photographs on a dark purple wall, showing a Black figure reclining on sand in white slip dress
An installation view of Widline Cadet’s ‘On a Clear Day, I Thought I Saw Forever,’ 2020 at MoAD. (Kristie Song)

“Seeing how other Black women in those videos occupied their bodies with a kind of freedom, confidence, and self-assuredness of their beauty and desirability was unimaginable to a shy, immigrant kid,” Cadet writes in the wall text. The piece is meant to make you waver for a moment, to stop and look again at the eyes that regard you with calm defiance.


Another showstopper is artist yétúndé ọlágbajú’s video installation How to Erase, Part I and Part II. On the museum’s second floor, the light tinkling of wind chimes and the low flutterings of noise against a microphone trickle out from a small room in the corner. Inside, a projector plays a screen-capture video of various, seemingly unrelated clips meshed together: a note being typed out, archival cartoon footage, a tree’s leaves rustling. Sitting alone, I entered an almost meditative state as I watched the clips, trying to piece together some sort of cohesive story. As the chimes and ambient sounds grew louder, I was able to read the note in its entirety.

“And in order to erase / I locate your crown / I move to your smile / I find your arms / I find your hips / I hold your hips / I find your complexities.”

In an artist and curator talk that evening, ọlágbajú explained that this video project was their way of processing being called a “mammy” by someone close to them several years ago. For this piece, it was important for ọlágbajú to represent the immediacy of their complex emotions — creating something that may seem fragmented and ambiguous at first glance but which encapsulates a sharp personal memory.

Silhouette of person looking up at project image, a collage of brightly colored nature, objects and text
Installation view of yétúndé ọlágbajú’s ‘How to Erase, Part I and Part II’ at MoAD. (Kristie Song)

On a bright red wall across from the second floor entrance sits a line of smaller portraits created by established photographers Ming Smith and Carla Williams. A self-portrait of Smith, the first Black woman to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, hangs on the right: a tender snapshot reminiscent of the imagery found in today’s selfie culture. On the left is one of Williams’ self-portraits from her 1992–1994 series Venus, which explore her relationship with her body and identity through her own lens.

As an art form, the self-portrait allows for a sense of autonomy and sincerity — a level of care and control in how the artist chooses to represent themselves. There are so many decisions that factor into these images: the framing, their expressions, their gaze. A self-portrait is a glimpse into who the photographer is at a particular point in time, a fleeting yet illuminating personal artifact.

For Williams, it is important that Black artists and photographers engage in self-portraiture and artmaking as a means to preserve and express who they are. “Black women have always been the center of my universe,” Williams said, at an artist and curator talk at MoAD. “There’s just no need for us to be interpreted.”

Today, Williams no longer takes photographs. Focused on archiving and writing, she is excited to see how her existing work can engage with the photographs and art being created by a younger generation. “There’s so much self love in that representation and really just claiming for oneself a kind of image that is not simply reduced to one thing or another — because we know that these are young women negotiating an entire world,” said Williams. “And in a split second, they decide, this is what I want you to see for right now. And maybe the next split second, this is what I want you to see. There’s so much control in that.”

‘Black Venus’ is on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco through Aug. 20, 2023. Details here.