The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts
Adrienne L. Childs
An exploration of race and representation in the decorative arts
Ornamental Blackness is a book project that creates a framework for understanding how the decorative arts figure into the larger discourse of representing blacks in European visual culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This book is the first of its kind to survey a range of diverse objects that employed the “blackamoor” as a decorative motif and develops a critical language for interpreting a brand of luxury objects that has little or no attention in these terms. The vogue for representing the African body in European luxury items served to disseminate tropes of blackness throughout spaces of wealth and refinement in Europe and beyond, becoming increasingly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Objects such as porcelain figurines, clocks, light fixtures (torchères), furniture and more represented not only the aristocratic taste for exoticism but a physical manifestation of the black laboring body in the guise of fashion and décor. My work investigates the tensions inherent in the system of codes in which the black body - enslaved, reviled, feared, subjugated, and assaulted- is also the symbol of luxury and opulence. Ornamental Blackness employs a diversified approach to the role of the symbolism in decorative arts and speaks to how the ideas presented by these objects operated in the theater of sumptuous living.