Acknowledging the Anti-Blackness in Classical Art

A historical bust from the Roman period sits on a pedestal next to six other statues.
Image Source: Engin Akyurt/ Unsplash

“One is White as one is rich, as one is beautiful, as one is intelligent.” – Frantz Fanon

Historically, whiteness has been hailed as the standard in beauty, art, and culture. In contrast, typically antithetical features like deeper skin tones, coily/kinky hair, and wider facial features or body types have been deemed inferior and thus unbeautiful. Often, this means interpretations of classical art are based on preconceived notions of anti-blackness.

One example is the 2004 book cover from Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity from Princeton University Press. The modern depiction of this 510 BC Greek painting of Herakles and Bousiris plays to anti-Black imagery of the naked Black male offset by his clothed white counterparts as violent, savage, and animalistic. But it does not acknowledge the more sophisticated approach to race present in the original painting, showing a myriad of complexions that are more representative of ancient Egyptian civilization (Getty).

TAKE ACTION

Follow platforms like A Black History of Art (@ablackhistoryofart) that provide a more representative view of world art history.

Consider how you react to Black and Brown cultural identities and expression. Identify unconscious biases you may hold about who or what is “ideal.”

Reflect: the next time you come across a historical narrative that praises European or Western progression, ask yourself these questions: Who are the ‘heroes’ of the story? Does this chronicle uphold whiteness as the standard?
Where do Black and Brown people fit into the narrative? How would I/do I feel when history diminishes the presence and contributions of people who look like me?

We continue to see this racial exclusion in T.V. romance dramas like Love Island (Popsugar), in the beauty and modeling world (Vogue), and even in academia. This impacts how we understand Black and Brown identities in these spheres and results in people who aren’t white, or white-passing, receiving fewer opportunities and less representation in the media.

Recently, news anchor and reporter Tashara Parker from WFAA-TV in Dallas went viral for her natural updo (Today). Though many applauded her for celebrating her Black hair and Blackness, the image posted online sparked debate about professionalism in the workspace. Often whiteness and its associated features are considered the most professional in the working world. This usually leaves Black and Brown people in liminal spaces while navigating the web of their racial identities and workplace expectations (Byrdie).

Upholding whiteness as the standard is not a phenomenon formed out of thin air. The exaltation of whiteness in media, art, and culture stems back to the Renaissance period. During this era, many artists fascinated with the earlier Greco-Roman period began to recreate those statues, opting for white marble to reflect what they understood to be the “classical” artistic technique. However, those Greco-Roman marble sculptures, such as the famous statue of Caesar Augustus from 1 A.D., were originally vibrantly painted and adorned with intricate patterns and shapes. But over the centuries, these pigments faded, leading Renaissance artists to believe that they had originally been white (Vox). In the 18th century, influential art historians such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann began praising the “pristine whiteness” of these marble statues as the classical archetype (Hyperallergic).

It was from works like these that Eurocentrism and whiteness began to pervade conceptions of beauty. Color was equated to barbarism in terms of race due to the ongoing transatlantic slave trade and artistic pigment. Recently, art historians have been able to identify that these statues were originally painted in color thanks to new technology (Gizmodo). While this revelation does not make these ancient sculptures distinctively pro-Black/Brown, they do work to change not only how we understand the use of color in the classical world but challenges how we view color and even race today.

Continuing to hail whiteness as the ideal leaves no room for other racial and ethnic identities to flourish in the modern world. In academia, the ongoing battle of “decolonizing” the curriculum (The Guardian) in world-renowned universities like Oxford and Cambridge demonstrates the overwhelming systematic biases stifling color and diversity in contemporary intellectualism.

In the U.S., the number of non-white professors is significantly lower than non-white students in higher education. In 2017, 76% of all college and university faculty members were white, compared to 55% of undergraduates (Inside Higher Ed). While there has been substantial growth in racial diversity amongst the student population within the last two decades, the world of professional academia is still very racially exclusive.

As a student of modern and medieval history and language, I’ve experienced firsthand how historical narratives continue to exclude the contributions and discoveries of Black and Brown people for simply not being white. The impressive Nok sculptures from ancient southern West Africa are one example of Black artistry in classical world art. Some of these archaeological discoveries of the Nok peoples date back to as early as 1500 B.C. and are crucial in understanding early ancient civilizations. (ThoughtCo)

Similarly, bronze sculptures from c. 850 A.D. South India depicting Hindu deities can be crucial in analyzing the evolution of religious art history. They are also important in understanding early Indian art history in a broader cultural-historical context. However, since these are ancient Black and Brown art sculptures that do not showcase white civilization, they have not been afforded the same treatment for understanding classical world art history. Ignoring the historical prevalence of Black and Brown early civilizations and their art not only whitewashes classical world history but leaves minimal space to appreciate Black and Brown cultures as key to global history today.

The pervasiveness of whiteness as a societal paradigm means that Black and Brown people continually have to fight to legitimize our perspective. It is not enough for us to just be– we are obliged to assimilate outward expression and internal thought if we want to succeed.

Initiatives like the CROWN Act and other anti-discriminatory policies are the first steps in making diversity the standard. They put pressure on organizations and businesses to assess how they treat and view Black and Brown people, including women like Tashara Parker, and their cultural identities. While anti-discrimination laws will never be the panacea that a world plagued by inequality needs (World of Labor), they take a necessary step in identifying and denouncing discriminatory practices.

When whiteness is no longer upheld as the standard, cultural and ethnic diversity can truly be celebrated instead of simply being add-ons in one-week diversity panels and boards. The realities of being Black or Brown in America will no longer be a set of hurdles to overcome but rather a mosaic of experiences and cultures to be celebrated and explored. A society that no longer deifies whiteness is a society in which beauty, art, and culture can be accepted in all shades.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

History isn’t objective. Often Black and Brown people are left out of historical narratives that have shaped how we view and understand the modern world.

Greco-Roman sculptures were often brightly painted but lost their color over hundreds of years. Their colorless appearance centuries later upheld a standard of whiteness that was inaccurate.

As a societal ideal, glorifying whiteness creates no room for Black and Brown people and their cultural expressions, which delegitimizes their positions.

Rejecting whiteness through policy and legislature is just the first step in creating room for non-performative diversity and inclusion for Black and Brown people.

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