Written by Ceilidh Munroe
Kerry James Marshall
Untitled (La Venus Negra), 1992

I have curly hair. I currently consider this a blessing; I wear it out with pride and never straighten it, but I can tell you right away that this mindset was a long time coming. The child of a Jamaican father and Canadian mother, I spent my adolescent years in Calgary, Alberta, poring over Seventeen Magazine at slumber parties and dancing to Britney Spears videos on MuchMusic. I wasn’t surrounded by people of colour; nobody was there to swat my hand away from the hairbrush or tell me to avoid sulfates at all costs. Instead, I faithfully followed the tips in magazines like Seventeen: I blow dried and brushed, desperately trying to emulate the models’ hair. (Spoiler alert: it did not work). Since nobody told me that curly hair was beautiful, I equated beautiful hair with what I saw in magazines: sleek, shiny, and straight. After all, when a single aesthetic is celebrated in the media, it perpetuates the idea that any other look is of lesser value.

Kerry James Marshall speaks to this experience when he says “images don’t only express our desires, they teach us how to desire in the first place”[1]. Exclusively depicting white standards of beauty characterizes them as the only meaningful ideals. Marshall’s work presents an alternative to this focus by portraying marginalized figures with compassion. They are shown with dignity and strength in the same way that white figures traditionally have been. The first time I saw Marshall’s work I was surprised and impressed. Why is this compassionate representation of the black figure so shocking and revolutionary? White is the default setting because art history has been exclusively defined by the white body. Marshall’s unapologetically black figures are portrayed as strong, empowered, and beautiful, countering this cultural focus on the white aesthetic. Two of Marshall’s paintings at Rennie Museum, ‘Untitled (La Venus Negra)’ (1992) and ‘Super Model (Female)’ (1994), contrast beautifully rendered black figures with depictions of white beauty. By doing so, they position the black woman, and any other woman who does not conform to these ideals, as an example of value and beauty.  These two black figures present an alternative narrative to the dominant white framework.

Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus, 1483-1485
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In ‘Untitled (La Venus Negra)’, Kerry James Marshall borrows from various religious iconography to attribute value to the central black figure. The work features a sole black woman surrounded by clippings from beauty magazines. An anatomical heart is collaged over part of her chest, and thick white lines connect the clippings. The central figure looks directly at the viewer with a derisive expression, and the words ‘La Venus Negra’ appear across the top of the canvas. Marshall places the woman’s hands in a gesture of benediction and gives her a delicate halo, echoing portraits of Christ as the saviour of mankind. In contrast to the Christian symbolism surrounding her, she dons tattoos of Haitian voudou veves, which are used to identify gods and goddesses of the voudou pantheon. On the figure’s breast is the veve of Erzulie, the goddess of love and beauty. This symbol identifies the black figure as a counterpart to the traditional representations of Venus and Aphrodite. There are many famous depictions of Venus in art history as a white woman, such as Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (c. 1480) with her strawberry blonde hair and pearly white skin, or Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ (1538). They are exemplary of how the white body has exclusively been used to display beauty, and how significance and importance have been predominantly controlled by white people. The veve challenges that dominant narrative of beauty, and provides an alternative that does not focus on the traditional canon of the white Venus. The word ‘negra’ in the title of Marhsall’s work forces the viewer to contend with this history of white-washed representation. ‘Untitled (La Venus Negra)’ may be surrounded by white ideals of beauty, but she exemplifies an equal alternative with natural hair and African features. Not only does the work use the black figure to counter white ideals of beauty, but it forces the viewer to consider our exclusive history of who we have chosen to meaningfully represent.

Kerry James Marshall
Super Model (Female), 1994

‘Super Model (Female)’ portrays a nude black woman confidently presenting herself, primping her hair while haughtily looking at the viewer as if we are her mirror. A sun-like yellow orb hovers to the left of her head, and to the right is a list of famous supermodels: Linda, Cindy and Naomi. A thick white line scoops below the figure to connect the sun and the names, connecting the brilliance and importance of the sun with the beauty these women possess. Rather than her natural texture, the figure is wearing a wig of straight, brunette hair which makes me think of all the time I spent wishing I could change how my own hair behaved. If only I could remove the kinks and coils I would be beautiful. Sometimes, it seemed like my only option was to shave my head and get a wig. Included in the names is famous black supermodel Naomi Campbell. Her skin may provide an alternative to the white dominated industry, but she famously wears pin straight hair. That straight hair perpetuates the dominant ideal, not straying too far from whiteness. For black women to achieve the predominant hair standards, we must remove a part of ourselves. The beauty industry positions straight hair as desirable, while coily or curly hair must be straightened, tamed, to be valued. Marshall places his depiction of the black figure in between of the sun and the models to interrupt the narrative of white dominated ideals of beauty. Like ‘Untitled (La Venus Negra)’, the confident black figure and Naomi Campbell’s name demand the viewer turn a critical eye to our history of exclusively celebrating the white body and white features. Despite the confident expression of the figure, the straight wig in ‘Super Model (Female)’ drives home the Western cultural focus on white ideals of beauty.

Venus of Urbino, 1538
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Over a decade later, my hair no longer resembles a stray tumbleweed. It has become a marker of my identity, inseparable from my self-worth. I am proud when people compliment it, and I feel a sense of community when I see other women wearing their curls. Seeing the way that Kerry James Marshall renders his figures’ hair with such care and respect inspires me to consider the ways in which my own hair is beautiful. Maybe if I had seen empathetic images that displayed hair like mine when I was younger, I would have felt more pride in how my own behaved. Marshall provides a contrast to the myriad ways that white women are depicted as beautiful by showing black women as dignified, important, and just as beautiful. Being a docent at Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition allows me to spend time considering his works, seeing how they shape representation, and to have conversations with people who have been through similar experiences. In my tours, I have noticed many people deeply appreciate the proud portrayal of black figures. Compassionate representation of the black figure is contrary to the dominant white framework, making it seem daring, bold and different. Marshall’s work puts the black figure into depictions of power and importance, allowing us to see ourselves shown in a real and significant way. Seeing hair types that you identify with may seem like a minor thing, but I can personally tell you that it makes an enormous difference.

[1]Marshall, Kerry James. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry – Press Preview”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 24 October 2016. Video.