In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as race science blended with the new colonial imperialism, “human zoos” became all the rage in the west. Placed into “natural habitats,” adorned in “traditional dress” and sometimes behind bars, people from “exotic” lands were put on display for a gawking public. All of this to prove the racial theories of the day–that people after all were not alike all over.
Art- Poster of the “Peoples Show” (Völkerschau) in Stuttgart (Germany), 1928
Sisters of the Spear is an anthology of “seventeen original and exciting” fantasy tales featuring heroines of color, set in realms of magic, monsters and myth outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yes Virginia, there is life–and fantastic stories to be told–beyond Westeros.
“Ayen and Bull”- art by Jason Reeves. Story by “moi”
Much of the mental imagery we conjure of the non-Western world in the past century come from endless photos–often of varied peoples in fantastic headdress, wrapped in “exotic” clothing and striking regal poses. For artists, creators and those looking for “authenticity” or understandings of cultures and peoples seemingly “lost in time,” these images are invaluable. But how authentic are such glimpses of the past? Especially when constructed through a colonial lens? Can photos…lie?
A minor kerfuffle on race and representation was kicked up following last Sunday’s season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Most noticeably, the barely restrained tilt towards Orientalism and the “great white emancipator” finally crossed the red line with the episode “Mhysa.” By week’s end, more than a few articles appeared in criticism, most noticeably comedian Aamer Rahman who pointed out why the Khaleesi’s entire storyline has been “messed up” from the jump. The reactions to this were typical: Denials. Charges of political correctness run amok. And of course, lots’ o’ geek-splainin’. But anyone barely acquainted with modern fantasy literature knows that from black-veiled Haradrim to the Ever Victorious Seanchan to the slavers of Yunkai, the genre has had a long love affair with exotic and dangerous “others.”
Detail of statue of St. Maurice, Magdeburg, Germany, Cathedral of St. Maurice and St. Catherine, choir, ca. 1240-50
The recent use of earrings fashioned in the images of exotic black women by Dolce and Gabbana during a fashion show has caused understandable controversy. Critics charge the imagery is too reminiscent to slave-era derived caricatures of blacks, like Mammy or Little Sambo. D&G has denied racism is at play, and instead point to a history of black-a-moor decorative art on the Italian peninsula dating back to the medieval era, where blacks were numbered among the Arab-Berber armies that invaded Sicily in the 10th century. The truth may lie somewhere between the two claims. While black-a-moor decorative art indeed predates slavery and black caricatures like Mammy, their history is rooted in the European imagination–and come with inherent contradictions. As shown in a previous post, in medieval European stories and legends, black-a-moors appear as threatening figures associated with the Muslim world. But, as I discuss here, they could also take the guise of benevolent allies. Over time, these varied depictions would meld with the coming era of African slavery, where skin color became increasingly tied to servitude and bondage.
Last month fashion icons Dolce & Gabbana sent models down the runway sporting earrings carved in the likeness of black women. The uproar was instantaneous. One story described the earrings as “slave-like,” linking them to a long history of black caricatures. Another lampooned D&G for engaging in “cartoonish, debasing, subaltern imagery that would make even your politically incorrect Grandpa think twice.” The official media term for them became, “slave earrings.”