Colonial Anthropological Eroticism and the Sexualisation of Black Women
CW: Nudity, sexualization, sexual assault, slavery and colonialism
Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, opens with a scene of a busy London street with reference to a man selling picture postcards to passers-by. This reference, although brief, is a nod to the mass cultural form that postcards took throughout Europe as photography grew in popularity with the introduction of the mobile camera and postcards became the dominant form of not only documenting the expansion of colonialism, but for Europeans alike to satiate their desire for the exotic, the other and a feeling of white superiority. The first colonial postcards featured in the 1889 Paris Exhibition, with the British Empire following suit in their International Exhibition in 1909. And yet, in an age of modesty and decorum where white women were protected by a realm of sanctity, the naked Black woman’s body became a recurring feature of colonial postcards, subjected to overt sexualisation and produced for the consumption of the European male.
The nineteenth century was the era of anthropological photography. Within the establishment of European colonies, the emergence of photography as a new medium to accurately capture the details of its subjects, the camera became a valuable tool to document the discoveries of the new world and visualise the expansion of empire. Through the act of documenting, photography in this era was established as a method of science — thus, allowing images that would have otherwise been deemed socially obscene and pornographic to pass as respectable findings of science. The ultimate result of distancing this version of photography from art was that its subjects were stripped of their humanity and presented as scientific objects for viewers to scrutinise and analyse.
In this context, photographing Africans was a form of specimen photography — it aimed to catalogue the racial and physical characteristics that fed the narrative that indigenous peoples were ‘primitive’ and thus, inferior to white Europeans. The ideal anthropologic photograph dictated scientific rules, such as the requirement for measurements and grids that would allow for comparison to others. However, these rules were loosely followed and eventually disregarded. And yet, the original guise of science remained and allowed for erotic images of African women to retain their fiction of educational value for European men.
However, despite these photographs being collected under the guise of scientific curiosity, they nonetheless carry the intention to arouse its audience. The sheer volume of anthropological images and postcards of naked or semi-naked African women can be considered evidence enough; these pictures would not exist in such volume if they were not so readily distributed and consumed by European men. Further, it is essential to note that where the act of colonialism is overtly masculine, it has been observed by other scholars that despite the ‘otherness’ of African bodies, the penis remained recluse, hidden and protected from the visual assaults experienced by the feminine body. This censoring of the penis shows that although African men were still considered beneath their colonial counterparts, the status of masculinity was hegemonically powerful and worth preserving, regardless of race or class. It is vital to remember these elements of colonial and masculine power when considering the subjects of these photographs.
Regarding the photography of women, a seemingly consensual narrative could be easily constructed from these images — subjects are often seen looking directly into the camera, challenging the audience to view them in their nakedness. This narrative is in contrast to the demure and covered white woman who maintains her status of civility and respect through her clothing. However, the very nature of colonial and masculine powers is that of dominating the other, the weaker and the overtly feminine. Colonialism is the act of penetrating and subjugating. So while these images may appear consensual, it would be incorrect to assume that they were and that coercive or direct acts of dominance were not at play. Overall, this fictional narrative of the consensual, alluring and brazenly sexual African woman is what led to the still-existing archetype of the hyper-sexual Black woman seen in media today.
The portrayal of African women as overtly primal and sexual beings was a foundation to a harmful stereotype that continues to exist today. These photos embedded onto postcards and sent back to men in Europe encouraged the male fantasy and fetishisation of Black women. In doing so, it birthed the Le Harem Colonial discourse – the harem fantasy held by male colonists. This fantasy existed in campaigns targeted at European men, especially in France, and encouraged the migration of workers and civilians to the new colonies under the guise that African women were less prim and less sexually restrained than European women. However, after volunteering to move to Africa, the men who were so swayed by the narrative of ‘easy and available’ women soon realised that the promise that was marketed to them through these postcards, was not a true reflection of African culture.
It is these men who carried out sexual assaults on African women, and even after slaverly was abolished, the assaults on Black women and girls in both Africa and in the diaspora continued. This behaviour did not end, and the archetype of the ‘easy’ Black woman contributes to Black women being less likely to be believed when they do report sexual assault.
In short, the introduction of the mobile camera and its use as an anthropological tool within African colonies led to a social disconnect regarding Black women’s bodies — leading them to be regarded as overtly sexual and yet, at the same time, other. This otherness is, overall, what allowed the nudity of African women to fall beneath the rules of social decorum. Through the forced sexualisation of African women’s bodies, the hyper-sexualised Black woman’s archetype remains prevalent even today. The postcards that allowed this medium to exist and transcend national borders and be disseminated into the broader public, was a critical tool used by colonial powers to strip the Black woman of their humanity. Examples of these postcards and their contextual history remain a source of importance when considering the unique experiences of African women, and the issues faced by modern day Black women.
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