Who knew that after the demolition of Kara Walker’s wildly popular “Marvelous Sugar Baby” art installation (see photo at left) at the old Domino sugar refinery in Brooklyn, the giant-sized booty of her 35-foot-high and 75-foot-long Sphinx would cast a long shadow this summer?
At least that seems to be the case with the uproar this week over pop artist Nicki Minaj, who posed in a G-string revealing her ample-sized behind in the cover art for her single “Anaconda.” Judging from various pearl-clutching responses—from fans and naysayers on social media, to feminists and hip-hop website owners—the spectacle of the “big-booty” black woman once again elicits simultaneous awe and repulsion.
Looking at the all-too-familiar image of a black woman emphasizing her posterior, it is much too easy to make the usual historical parallels between Sara Baartman the “Hottentot Venus“—the South African woman (ca. 1788-1815) who was exhibited before European audiences interested in seeing her large behind—and her 21st-century descendants: the video vixen, the pole dancer, the twerk dancer, the porn star, the pop singer or the female rapper. Nicki Minaj resisted those comparisons by talking back and pushing back. Refusing to be a mysterious giant sugar sphinx or even an iconic throwback to a freak-show science specimen, the rapper sent the world some tweets and Instagram photos.
Positioning her own image as “unacceptable” (see photos below) in comparison to the more “acceptable” images of similarly G-string-clad models—white, slender, girlish with just a hint of curvaceousness—Nicki rightly challenged her gawkers to question just what it was that made her black female body so morally dangerous. She demanded to know what was so comical (as occurred with various social media memes of the image) or so pornographic (as anti-porn feminist Gail Dines reductively suggested when she called the rapper’s image “little more than a big butt”) about her strong stance. Nicki’s posts even challenged viewers to consider her erotic appeal, sexual agency and even ironic performativity.
What makes the black female booty immediately “Venus Steatopygia” versus “Venus Kallipygos,” the former couched in sexual pathology and racial deviance while the latter is warmly wrapped up in sensual beauty, aesthetic appreciation and praise?
It is this common reading of the black booty as deviant that reinforces sexuality, especially when coupled with racial otherness, as distasteful and detrimental. This is the brilliance of Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx, which itself was created as an amalgamation of the ancient Giza Sphinx and the modern-day “hip-hop honey” crouched on all fours and exposing her behind—part animal, part goddess. Reflecting on the legacy of slavery in the production of sugar in the New World, Walker’s Sugar Sphinx—literally white-washed and coated in 40 tons of sugar lightened from its raw brown appearance—illuminates the grandiose and grotesque nature of our racial history: a whitened history based in the erasure of exploited slave labor (horrifically captured in the melting sculptures of overworked molasses-covered boys) set against the hyper-visibility and hyperbole of black female sexuality distorted beyond human recognition.
Yet, if art critics and audiences are willing to recognize Walker’s genius in capturing this legacy of the whitened Brown Sugar Sphinx, could we not also recognize that Nicki Minaj similarly and brilliantly engages these politics via performance art (much like fellow pop star Lady Gaga and their predecessor, Grace Jones, an obvious influence)? Nicki’s gaze is defiant as she looks directly at the camera—not unlike her aggressive challenge of the male gaze in her earlier song and video “Lookin Ass N***“—and she disrupts stereotypical notions of femininity by sporting blue Jordans in lieu of stiletto heels. Her image is aggressively raunchy instead of submissively “come hither” sexy. No wonder the numerous memes on the Internet have sought to neutralize its sexual power!
This neutralization too is part of a longer racialized sexual history in which European colonialists often misread African women’s bodies and fertility dances through the Judeo-Christian-infused and sex-negative lens of vulgarity. But this history is also why black women in turn pushed back, sometimes through their very bodies. It’s why Josephine Baker crossed her eyes as she donned a banana skirt, why Nigerian women stripped naked and danced in their “Women’s War” in 1929, why this war continues on various dance floors throughout the African Diaspora; twerking is the latest weapon.
This is why several black feminists on Twitter have recently used the hashtag #lettersyouforgottowrite to call out AllHipHop.com founder Chuck Creekmur (who issued an open letter to Nicki Minaj) and other black men and the hip-hop culture at large for their hypocrisy in policing Nicki’s promotional imagery and performances while failing to hold men accountable for their own sexualized treatment of women.
These narratives of black female sexuality are ultimately bigger than Nicki Minaj, who continues to be a visual and lyrical provocateur. However, our collective angst over her body—which mirrors the juvenile responses to Walker’s Sugar Sphinx, as captured in viewers’ sexually titillating photos posted on Instagram—are as predictable as long-standing stereotypes. It’s time we develop new ways of engaging race and sexual politics.
The author is grateful to Mireille Miller-Young, author of the forthcoming A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Duke UP, 2014), for her feedback on this essay.