Photo Friday – Confronting the attitudes of the past: a challenging image for Black History Month

20131018 [A Disappointment]This week’s Photo Friday features a difficult and controversial illustration from the Liddell Hart Collection of Costume in recognition of Black History Month.  This caricature was collected by Sir Basil Liddell Hart along with a number of other satirical and topical cartoons from the nineteenth century, and can be found on our library catalogue within a folder of cartoons (741.5 CAR). We invited David Tyrer, Reader in Critical Theory at LJMU, to write a guest blog post today to put the image in context.


David  says of the piece;

 “The image depicts a white European man apparently revealing the head and face of a woman only to expose her real nature as a disappointment in his eyes, which in this case means exposing her blackness. The racial difference on display is further emphasized through the contrast between the two women in the cartoon. The man’s reaction is indicated in the title – “A Disappointment” – and expressed in the words which follow: “Dear me she’s a black one”.

It would be naive to read this simply as a satirical comment on the racial mores of the time, for the image clearly objectifies and fetishises the racial difference of the black woman placed on show in this way for the gaze of the reader, who is assumed to be white, and it invokes and reproduces racial stereotypes and hierarchies rather than challenging them straightforwardly. Heath’s caricature plays to racialised fantasies, desires, disgust, and limits. The image does not simply address the central character, but it addresses the reader with an implicit challenge (“would you also be disappointed?”) that speaks to the very fantasies, disgust, desires and limits in the reader that it highlights in the central character. This challenge refigures the Lacanian “che vuoi?” (what does the Other want from me?) to interpolate the reader as the masculine subject of thwarted desire and the bearer of racially gendered fantasies. The seated woman is thus unspeaking; the emphasis is instead on the central character’s disappointment with her and the reader’s own response in relation to this disappointment with her.

 The caricature may be satirical but it cannot be seen to offer a substantive critique of racially gendered mores; in fact, the economy of the caricature is entirely reliant upon them in order for it to be legible to Heath’s assumed readers. Far from challenging ideas about race, it draws upon recognizable idioms through which race was represented at the time and thus belongs to a wider context of colonial power relations and the racial and gendered stereotypes through which these were expressed.

 A particularly infamous case at this time was that of Saartjie Baartman, who was also caricatured by William Heath in one of his more famous images. Born in South Africa, Baartman was taken to Europe and exhibited in London and Paris, where she died in December 1815. The macabre European fascination with Baartman did not end with her death, however, for Georges Cuvier cast her in plaster, dissected her body and preserved her genitalia, breasts and brain in medical jars, and almost two centuries would pass before she was finally repatriated to South Africa for a dignified funeral in 2002. In both life and death Baartman was subjected to a macabre voyeurism, both as a popular spectacle paraded before the paying public and depicted in illustrations and other texts, and as a medical specimen to be studied in minute detail by ethnologists, medical experts and naturalists. Visual culture and science came together in this exercise, influencing both the emergence of racial science, now widely discredited, and subsequent cultural representations of racial difference; white Europeans’ representations of Baartman would be invoked in nineteenth century texts that provided the foundations for modern scientific racism. Heath’s “A Disappointment” belongs to this context. It draws upon recognizable idioms through which race was represented at this time, idioms which would in turn be repeatedly drawn upon to sustain racism. It fetishises the racially gendered body of the “disappointment”, addressing the reader as a particular type of subject – white and male – and it plays to his gaze.  Saartjie Baartman’s story was featured in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2007, and Heath’s famous caricature is held at the British Museum.

Like Heath’s caricature of Baartman, which simultaneously makes an English political point, “A Disappointment” is not a straightforward image.  However, in spite of its complexities it cannot be read anachronistically as though it is a critique of racism at a point in history when racism was so normalized and unquestioned that the term racism had not even emerged yet as a means of naming and challenging the barbarisms undertaken as a result of problematic views of race and racial difference and the weird, sinister racial science that was being dreamt up throughout the nineteenth century. In fact, “A Disappointment” is a reflection of the hold of those deeply problematic views, and it needs to be seen as such.

This is an extremely interesting image held in the Liddell Hart collection at LJMU; in the context of slavery and campaigns for its abolition, Heath’s caricature speaks to the changing status of Black Britons and satirises the sneers and attitudes of the day without ever managing to free itself of the intellectual currents that underpinned them”

There are a large number of satirical and political cartoons and fashion plates from the nineteenth century within the Liddell Hart Collection of Costume, and access to this material is by arrangement with the LJMU Archivist.

Further reading:

 Crais, Clifton C & Scully, Pamela (2009), Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press Gould, Stephen Jay (1981), The Mismeasure of Man, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Holmes, Rachel (2007) The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman: Born 1789 – buried 2002, London: Bloomsbury Wallace, Michele (2004), Dark Designs and Visual Culture, Durham NC: Duke University Press

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