A Not-So-Brief History of Twerking

By Benjamin Gentilli

From Miley Cyrus twerking with a large black woman on an LA stage to Lily Allen’s provocative sexualisation of nameless and faceless black dancers, the status of black women as an artistic symbol has been brought back to the fore, exposing cracks in the fragile latticework of race and gender. Even in Russia, there was a vociferous reaction against a portrait of Roman Ambramovich’s girlfriend in Buro 24/7. Black, it seems, is back in the papers. And yet this is not new, and those feminists who clamour for Miley’s head on a stick, seeing her as a cause not a symptom, are both historically and contextually blinded. This process of imaging the black female body is not to be confined to a modern day marketing stunt – its roots are deeper, more obscure and more sinister than we care to admit.

Renée Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper (2001)

Wangechi Mutu's Intertwined (2003)

Wangechi Mutu’s Intertwined (2003)

I should make something clear about the following words. They are about the scope and history of the black female as an artistic symbol. Quantity not quality. Therefore, though not without hesitation, I largely skate over an active community of black female artists critically engaged with the issue. In Wangechi Mutu’s 2003 collage series satirising the myths surrounding African female sexuality or Renée Cox’s controversial use of her own body to challenge gender and racial stereotypes, there exists a robust retort to the ramblings of Allen and Cyrus. Unfortunately, Cox’s work (in particular) has not received the critical attention it so rightly deserves. Past a local spat with New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 2001, she remains on the fringes of cultural, if not artistic, life. She is knowingly under-recognised. While the quality of her work has undoubtedly influenced a small cultural elite, it does not and cannot bear up to the quantity of Allen’s audience. To take that fine indicator of cultural clout, Lily Allen has 4 million followers on Facebook and 30 million people who watched her Youtube video; Cox manages just 239 likes. Not even Don Draper could alter those statistics.

Watching Lily Allen’s “Hard  Out Here” makes for painful viewing; not least because of the way she pawns herself out to product placement  (E-Lites) or her childish and paradoxical vision of feminism (where “irony” is used as a lethargic replacement for critical thinking); but because it’s a chilling reminder of Franz Fanon’s famous critique of racism – that it works “as a kind of seen invisibility”. Like children who were to be seen but not heard, Fanon’s black people were trapped by the very stereotypes that demeaned them, by the psychology of inferiority. In Fanon’s eyes, much like how black coals turn white hot, the very actions of Allen’s dancers stoke inter-racial boundaries. Perhaps it then comes as little surprise that the very man who shed light on this process was himself pushed to the margins of academic celebrity. It was Fanon who first truly saw the value of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as a theoretical tool for post-colonial psychology, not Michael Foucault – modern day icon of every arts professor in North America and beyond. But to his colonial contemporaries in Lyon, Fanon’s apocalyptic aphorisms and incendiary rhetoric did little to appease those intellectual trend-setters for whom race and revolution were still dirty words. The point being, this history is pervasive. It runs from the intellectual heights of philosophical psychology to the popular currents of contemporary music. It’s an image that permeates words and language. It is almost “seen invisible” itself. In trying to truly re-visualise it, we must step much further back in time.

The Hottentot Venus

An early 19th century cartoon of the Hottentot Venus showing the stereotypical reactions of the male elite.

On 18th September 1810, Sara Bartmann, the Hottentot Venus, was exhibited at 225 Piccadilly Circus to critical sensation. Shows across Europe soon followed as she rose to international fame and the Hottentot become an icon of black sexuality. Her mix of the primitive, erotic, savage and lasciviousness defined the black female stereotype in the colonial imagination. Her abundant buttocks and elongated labia became both symbols of ridicule and desire. She was both freak-show and sex icon, the Enlightenment’s twilight answer to Cirque de Soleil and Playboy. Five years later, she was dead. Her autopsy, now as famous as her life, equated her with an orang-utan and positioned her as the “lowest rung on the great chain of being”.

By and large, the story of the Hottentot has been seen as a narrative of genesis, a launch pad for later biological inscriptions of racial difference onto the female body. She has become an academic icon for post-structurialist inquiries into the issues of race and gender that confront us today, celebritised by titans of race studies such as Henry Louis Gates and Sander Gilman. And until recently, I thought the story stopped (or began) there.

Until I found myself staring at a small cameo of an African woman in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Tucked away in a corner of a museum known for its vast collection of Rembrandts, Rubens and Raphaels, she was of seemingly little art historical consequence to those great ‘arbitrators of knowledge’ – the museum directors. Her plaque simply stated with almost bored indifference the date, “1575-1600”. Well over two hundred years before Sara Bartmann.

Cameo at the Kunsthistorishen Museum

A cameo at the Kunsthistorishen Museum by Milanese goldsmith, Girolamo Miseroni- while perhaps the finest example of its kind it was just one of hundreds that flooded the European market upon the European discovery of sub-Saharan Africa.

She is nobody, an artistic apparition based on a print by a Dutchman who had neither been to Africa nor seen an African woman. Yet anonymity carries more individual value. Her softly pursed lips, aggressively pinched eyebrows, elaborate jewellery, and slipping dress convey the hallmarks of a stereotype: eroticism, sexual promiscuity, animalistic aggression and the elusive connection to unfathomable colonial riches.  Recalling the bejeweled gems and the gold-platted bling adorning Allen’s dancers, we see that little has changed in race’s symbolic language. Perhaps it was here that the stereotype was born.

Yet stereotypes aren’t forged from singularity. Well over three hundred cameos of African women were recorded in the collection of the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II – the Charles Saatchi of the Renaissance (best known for commissioning portraits of himself composed of vegetables with mange-tout for eyebrows and a pineapple for a forehead). With remarkable iconography similarity, these cameos flooded the palaces and art collections of the European elites. They were copied, and recopied.  They became symbols of colonial control – a way of dealing with the intellectual chasm that came along with the discovery of whole new continents, at a time when unfamiliarity and ignorance were the words of the day. The black African female, brought to Europe largely through traveller accounts, became an object of luxury, fascination and desire for popes, poets and painters. She spoke of a land unconquered. Yet in imaging her, in sculpting her, and in sexually possessing her, there existed a deeply biological sense of conquest. Named after her continent she came to embody Africa – where her exoticism and sexual deviancy was used as a justification for imperial possession.

Michelangelo's Cleopatra

Michelangelo’s Cleopatra (c.1533)

And crucially, she was imagined. She was born out of the myths of Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba and the bride of the Song of Songs. An image perhaps most famously described in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra when Philo comments on both Cleopatra’s darkness and sexuality, sensuously describing how Anthony’s eyes “now bend, now turn/The office and devotion of Their view/Upon a tawny front”. Steadily, this imagined history gained cultural currency: Michelangelo’s drawing of Cleopatra was printed and heavily circulated, and the fables were slowly amalgamated into highly disseminated prints such as Maarten de Vos’s Allegory of Africa (1589). Here, the myths of the great queens of Africa coagulate into generic depictions of ‘Africa’.


Maarten de Vos’s Allegory of Africa (1589)

Retrospectively, it is with some irony that her crocodile leads her out of the Africa of jewels and riches and into the Africa of overwhelming primitivism, anticipating the inevitable shift in the colonial perspective. For as exploration slowly shed light on the primitive realities of Africa, it quickly falsified the legends of long lost citadels, Prestor John and mountains made of rubies. The explorer’s eye turned away from the glint of gold and towards its populations as the singular commodity of commercial value in an otherwise barren landscape.

Where she did exist, in the eyes of the reporting travellers or the few mainland Europeans who could gain privileged access to her, it was these characters they saw not the wide-eyed individual displaced from her home and stripped of her family. While these meetings were scarce, her image was not. Mass-produced on a European scale, the standardisation of the cameo format (the first stabilised depiction of a black African female) – as beautiful yet primitive, erotic yet savage- worked to construct boundaries between white and black skin. Lost in the depths of one of the world’s greatest museum, denigrated as kitsch in comparison to the ‘genius’ of Renaissance painting, the imagery of Allen and Cyrus find their ultimate referent.

Left: Still from Lily Allen’s ‘Hard Out Here’. Right: Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556-1559) .

Little has changed. Compare Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556-9) and Lily Allen’s music video (2014). While Titian’s treatment of the African slave was a one-off, the cameo format was systematic in its imaging of racial stereotypes.  And if anything, the value structures surrounding these two types of ‘objects’ (cameo and dancer) have devalued. To recall Fanon again, the symbolic change in the medium of representation – from stone to skin – speaks to the increasing “epidermilisation of the racial look”, colonialism’s insipid practice of continually manufacturing biological inferiority.

In trying to discover the real origins of this symbolic apparatus and the recent outrage it has provoked, what are we left with? A history that stretches well over half a millennium, across multiple continents and that counts popes, photographers and pop stars. It’s a narrative that is so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we fail to even recognise its existence. It’s covered up and buried, left to pick up dust in small corners of our cultural institutions, allowing whiteness to secure itself in its invisibility, in its dormancy. Perhaps then it is fitting that hidden on the reverse of the Kunsthistorisches cameo is an engraving of a white man – a ruler of Europe – Rudolf II. “Seen invisibility”, in the cruellest of ironies, springs back to mind.

3 Responses to “A Not-So-Brief History of Twerking”
  1. Helen says:

    This is such a good piece, thank you! A great read, and an important issue.

  2. This is really well researched and informational. I am making a documentary on the African Female Body through the lens of Wangechi Mutu so this was really helpful. If you would like to speak about it, let me know! Thank you again!

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