The Black Model – Decolonising Artistic Knowledge Production

Heike Becker reflects on an exhibition that foregrounded black subjects in 19th and early 20th century art. The exhibition restored the identities of the black models, often naming them for the very first time. Heike challenges us to face head-on the colonising act of invisibilising the black subject and fieldworker, without whose contributions the celebrated cultural and intellectual accomplishments of ‘Western’ scholars and artists would not have been possible.

By Heike Becker

For a few days in July this year I found myself in Paris. A highlight of the exquisite trip was a visit to Présence Africaine, the African bookshop and public window of the journal and publishing house by the same name, which has been a thriving home of African and diaspora culture and writing in France since 1947.

There was yet another tremendous occasion to encounter the African presence in France. For much of the northern spring and summer of 2019, for the first time an exhibition in the leading French museum of contemporary art foregrounded black subjects in 19th and early 20th century art. The Black Model: From Géricault to Matisse, which ran at the Musée d’Orsay from March to July this year, did more than simply revisit representations of black people in visual arts from the French revolution to the final decades of French colonialism in Africa. At the centre of this extraordinary exhibition were people of African descent who had sat as models for some of the most famous artists. Who were these women and men? What were their relations with the artists, and what their perspectives on wider society, in France and also in the Caribbean?

Indeed, some of those who sat for well-known French paintings came from Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean. Their faces were portrayed in famous artworks yet thus far they had remained nameless. To restore their identities, to even name them, often for the very first time, was the central aim of the exhibition.

About time! In a challenging move the curators had renamed some of the exhibited works. For instance, Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s, Portrait of a Black Woman (an item on loan from the Louvre’s collection), known as such since it was first presented in the Paris Salon of 1800, was renamed and is now known as Portrait of Madeleine, in an effort to present the story of the sitter. When viewing the exhibition, I learnt that the woman who looks back at the viewer with such amazing confidence and grace was Madeleine, an emancipated slave from Guadeloupe; she was also a domestic servant who worked in the house of the artist’s brother-in-law.

The curators of The Black Model did not rename the work of art that they presented as the exhibition’s centrepiece: Édouard Manet’s world famous Olympia. Ever since its initially controversial reception in 1865, the attention focused on Olympia, as the image of a naked white woman, ostensibly a prostitute, reclining in relaxed pose on a divan. The black woman, who is depicted in the right third part of the canvas, has hardly ever been discussed. In the recent exhibition though the presentation was focused on her. The strikingly attractive woman who posed for Manet for Olympia and other works has now been identified as ‘Laure’ who lived at the time in a modest neighbourhood of Paris. Viewers met the beautiful Laure again in the last room of the extensive show, which features re-imaginations of Olympia in a number of more recent works that shift the focus onto the erotic tension that exudes from the proximity of the white and black women’s bodies.

                 Édouard Manet’s Olympia first exhibited in Paris in 1865

As I made my way through the galleries on the ground floor of the stunning museum space, it suddenly hit me: the marvellous effort to properly acknowledge and name the unnamed black models of famous white French artists seemingly matched efforts of Africanising anthropology! Revisionist social histories of anthropology have for the past couple of decades emphasised the significance of the African research ‘assistants’ for celebrated studies, previously billed to the academically trained researcher alone.

At the turn to the 21st century Lyn Schumaker’s acclaimed study of the networks and fieldwork that produced the knowledge that came out of the Rhodes-Livingstone-Institute utterly reshaped the understanding of knowledge production. Knowledge production had to be understood more appropriately as collaborative processes that involved (white, often male, European or South African) researchers, African research assistants and the people anthropologists used to call ‘informants’.

I wondered: Did this exhibition in Paris do something similar for the production of visual art? Was this an even more revolutionary act of curatorship: Shedding light on the collaborative processes that produce art thus removing the production of art from the realm of the ‘genial’ individual (white, mostly male, European) artist?

Focused on this important angle, The Black Model covers the period from the French revolution to the inter-war period of the mid-20th century. The exhibition intersperses the presentation of famous and lesser-known art works that exemplify the changing representation of black people in French art of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its periodization demonstrates the full – and often brutal – tensions and contradictions of liberation, racism and colonialism in French modern history. The historical narrative starts with the hopeful moment when slavery was abolished in the French colonies in 1794 following the radical spirit of the revolution and the 1791 slave uprising in Sainte Domingue (Haiti), as CLR James famously noted in his preface to The Black Jacobins, ‘the only successful slave revolt in history.’ But only eight years later Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated slavery and the slave trade, and in 1804 Haiti proclaimed independence. It took almost half a century until slavery was abolished for the second time in France in 1848.

At about the same time French colonialism in Africa flourished; the second half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th was in France – like elsewhere in Europe – when we saw the horrendous spectacles of ‘human zoos’.  They only finally ended after World War 1, which saw the mobilisation of about 200,000 African soldiers, known as the Tirailleurs sénégalais in the French army and the arrival of Black American GIs in Paris. The exhibition stopped short of the infamous Thiaroye massacre of African recruits in 1944. Rather, the 1920s were celebrated – perhaps a little too uncritically – as the period that transformed Paris and the arts with jazz. A substantial part of the exhibition was further dedicated to the influence of the Harlem Renaissance on French artists like Henri Matisse.

This being an art exhibition of course, the changing representation of black people becomes apparent in an increasing attention to the portrayed individuals in the first half of the 20th century. I enjoyed expressive portraits such as Félix Vallotton’s Aïcha (1922) yet was taken aback by the continuous stereotypes of black icons of 20th century French arts and culture. Henri Matisse, and his celebration of the Harlem renaissance could have been given a more critical note I thought, given his continuation of the exotic fantasies of Tahiti.

    Larry Rivers produced I Like Olympia in Black Face in 1970

These were small misgivings though, and instantly assuaged in the final gallery. This space was given to reinventions of Manet’s iconic Olympia in fascinating art works that challenged the racialising gaze of the art world. I particularly liked Larry RiversI like Olympia in Black Face (1970) sculpture in painted wood, plastic and Plexiglass. Rivers doubles up the woman figure perched on the divan – on the upper tier the female figure on the settee is conventionally white and the attendant predictably black. On the other tier he turns the gaze around and we see a black woman in resting pose attended by a white woman. I also liked the noticeable presence of the cat – an overlooked detail of Manet’s painting. In Rivers’ reinterpretation of the iconic Olympia the feline too features in double, and in black and white.

Altogether The Black Model was a bold act of decolonising the political economy of artistic knowledge production. It faced head-on the colonising act of invisibilising the black – African and Caribbean – individuals, sitters and fieldworkers, without whose contributions the celebrated cultural and intellectual accomplishments of ‘Western’ scholars and artists would not have been possible.

Heike Becker is an activist and writer. As a professor at the University of the Western Cape she teaches anthropology and writes on politics, culture, and social movements across the continent.  Heike is a regular contributor to

Featured Photograph: ‘Portrait of a Black Woman’ by Marie-Guillemine Benoist in 1800 was part of ‘The Black Model: From Géricault to Matisse’ at Musée d’Orsay in Paris (Musée d’Orsay – facebook).






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