Somerset House Presents BLACK VENUS: A Landmark Exhibition on the Representation of Black Women in Visual Culture

Installation views of Black Venus at Somerset House

Opening on July 20th, Somerset House is set to showcase a groundbreaking exhibition titled “BLACK VENUS,” curated by Aindrea Emelife. This thought-provoking exhibition delves into the historical representation and ever-changing legacy of Black women in visual culture. Featuring the works of over 18 Black women and non-binary artists, the exhibition explores themes of othering, fetishization, and the reclamation of narratives surrounding Black femininity.

“BLACK VENUS” pairs more than 40 contemporary and predominantly photographic artworks with archival imagery dating back to 1793-1930. This juxtaposition highlights historical depictions of Black women and the caricaturing of the Black body, providing a critical context to the modern works that challenge centuries-long objectification. The exhibition proudly showcases the diverse and multifaceted aspects of Black womanhood, celebrating the strength and resilience of Black women throughout history and today.

The exhibition focuses on three perceived archetypes: the Hottentot Venus, the Sable Venus, and the Jezebel. By examining these themes, “BLACK VENUS” offers a profound exploration of the shifting image of Black women in visual culture and the complex lived experiences that inspire contemporary Black artists and non-binary artists.

Originally debuted at New York’s Fotografiska in 2022, this presentation at Somerset House features 19 new works and introduces six UK-based artists to the lineup. Before arriving in London, the exhibition completed a residency at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD).

Central to the exhibition’s focus is the Hottentot Venus archetype, represented historically by Sarah Baartman (Ssehura, b. 1789). Baartman was cruelly exploited by Dutch colonists, displayed as a ‘freak show’ exhibit. “BLACK VENUS” contrasts archival depictions with empowering contemporary portraiture, created by influential Black image-makers, reclaiming agency and space for Black women.

Emelife’s concept for “BLACK VENUS” draws from Thomas Stothard’s etching, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies” (c. 1800), exemplifying the exoticization of Black women in Western visual culture. The exhibition also delves into the trope of the Jezebel, using performer and cultural icon Josephine Baker as a lens to challenge racial prejudices.

One of the striking contemporary works in the exhibition is Renee Cox’s “HOTT-EN-TOT” (1994), where Cox defiantly reclaims the Hottentot Venus archetype. Other artists like Ayana V. Jackson and Carrie Mae Weems present counterimages to the dehumanizing treatment of Black women, shedding light on their path to freedom and equity.

“BLACK VENUS” weaves a powerful narrative of Black womanhood, inviting viewers to confront historical oppression and exploitation while celebrating the transformative works of today’s Black artists. The exhibition features an impressive lineup of artists, including Sonia Boyce, Zanele Muholi, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, and more.

Aindrea Emelife, the curator behind this transformative exhibition, emphasizes the importance of tracking the journey to this moment when Black women are claiming agency over their own image. “BLACK VENUS” serves as a legacy, reflecting the evolving political and socio-economic understanding of Black women and their place in the public consciousness.

Don’t miss this extraordinary exhibition, “BLACK VENUS,” curated by Aindrea Emelife, presented by Somerset House. The doors open on July 20, 2023, following successful presentations in New York and San Francisco. Admission is Pay What You Can, reflecting the exhibition’s commitment to accessibility and inclusivity. For more information and tickets, visit the Somerset House website:

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