Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

Thoughts on the Commodification of People of Color and Art History


One thing that writer Ann duCille mentioned in her essay The Occult of True Black Womanhood was the commodification and fetishizing of Black women in our current society; she brought it up in regarding the recent surge of critical attention being paid to the writing of Black women and also the broader academic and societal views of Black women. She posited that there is a difference between the works of Black women being respected and appreciated for what they are (legitimate scholarship) and focusing on Black women as some sort of idealized (and thereby trivialized) subject.

This observation was one that rang true with me currently and historically. It’s often occurred to me as I move through my life and observe various facets of it that there seems to be no middle ground for how people of color are viewed in mainstream society. It’s either that they are special or nothing, wise or trash, proper or freaky. I seem to observe almost no typical opinions of people of color in society outside of Southwestern U. As someone who is passionate about art history I observe this same issue in historical art. Using Gauguin as an example: he painted native Tahitian people in such a way as to perpetuate popular opinions of their otherness and wrote letters describing them as wise and ‘primitive’, endowing them with a sort of childish wisdom. This trivialized Tahitian culture, and he seemed to have no problem viewing them as artistic objects of inspiration. Other artists of his time either did the same kind of harmful projecting or viewed native peoples as savages. There was apparently little chance of seeing them as simply people with experiences and lives, and I feel that the same thing is still happening. I see this kind of fetishizing behavior in duCille’s observations of how eager critics of all kinds are to dive into Black feminist writings when perhaps they are doing so for misguided reasons, and in the mistaken words of people from my hometown who say that Black people ‘are just really good at sports and stuff, they have different bodies for it, it’s just their thing’.

I unfortunately don’t have a solution for how to remedy this beyond attempting to raise awareness of racial commodification, but these are some observations of parallels I’ve noticed between duCille’s thoughts and my own.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Commodification of People of Color and Art History

  1. Great post. Are you familiar with the work of Kara Walker? She’s one of my favorite artists, and she has a great way of turning the fetishizing gaze back on the viewer mirroring some of our most disturbing fantasies about black women and their bodies.

    Recently, she created a number of sugar sculptures in an old Domino factory to highlight the historical relationship between slavery and the cane fields (here’s a NYT article about the piece: )

    Given the scale of what she did, the exhibition turned into a tourist site with attendees taking selfies and posing happily, suggestively, and offensively in front of the sphinx-like figure’s giant breasts. To make things even more interesting, Walker filmed the crowd’s reactions and released this video:

    Kara Walker – An Audience (trailer) from Sikkema Jenkins & Co. on Vimeo.

    I’d be really interested to know what you think!

  2. I’m not actually sure how I feel about this…but it’s so typical of people to be silly when there’s anything bodily or possibly sexual being referenced =/ her idea seems like a good one, though one that I’m not sure a layperson could get at. It seems really rooted in theory.

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