Before I dive into the problematic tales of my final-year high school dance, I should probably address a few of your burning questions. What on earth is Baroque and why should I care about it?
Baroque is a style of art, music, architecture, and dance that gained huge popularity in 17th century Europe. It originated in Italy and it’s characterized by rich colors, grandeur, and intricate details. Much like other styles of art, Baroque has a colonial history that overlooks diverse depictions of black people living in this era. For the most part, it’s a whitewashed style of art, however, it has taken on a new life in the last century.
Today, the term ‘African Baroque’ refers to colorful jewelry, garments and ornaments made with traditional African textiles. It marries the colorful grandeur of Baroque art with the craftsmanship and design choices of African art.
Nevertheless, it’s still questionable to try and link African identity to Baroque art and my high school dance was the perfect example. Back in 2014, the theme for my final-year high school dance was “African Baroque.” Bear in mind that this event is usually a fun and celebratory moment in most students’ lives and a light-hearted ‘fairy-tale’ theme would have sufficed. At the time, I had no idea what Baroque was and neither did any of my peers. The theme didn’t sit well with any of us, but the teachers had the final say and we just had to roll with it.
On the night of the dance, the table décor consisted of Baroque-style décor, African textile prints, flowers, a few other ‘African-style’ ornaments and afro combs. Yes, you did read that correctly. We did have afro combs as table decorations and for some reason the organizers thought this was a good idea. For context, I went to a wealthy private school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa. In retrospect, I believe the whole event was a desperate attempt to promote diversity and Black culture at a predominantly white school and it missed the mark. Choosing to marry African themes with Baroque art was an arguably racist decision. And I’m here to tell you why.
In the past, depictions of African people in Baroque art were few and far between. It took ages for me to hunt down a Baroque painting on the internet that depicts a black person as the main focus. In light of this tiring research experience, I’m not going to pretend that slapping the word ‘African’ in front of ‘Baroque’ makes a meaningful difference. It’s still a deeply colonial art form.
Nevertheless, after a few hours of solid internet research, I stumbled upon a rare Baroque portrait painted around 1585 by Italian artist Annibale Carracci. He’s considered one of the forefathers of the Baroque style of artwork and one of the most prolific painters of his generation. His painting portrays an elegantly dressed African slave woman wearing a red coral necklace, pearl earrings, and a black long-sleeve dress with a white lace collar. The identity of the woman is yet to be discovered, but her clothing reveals that she’s a product of modernity and colonial Europe.
Similarly, Dutch painter Jan Jansz Mostaert’s Portrait of an African Man (circa 1525-1530) illustrates the presence of Black bodies within European life and the Baroque art scene. It’s a true rarity as it’s one of the only known portraits of a black individual from this period who wasn’t a slave. Due to the man’s attire, art historians believe the painting depicts a black nobleman who worked at a courthouse. Mostaert paid attention to detail and aimed to create detailed, realistic facial features, portraying the gentleman in an honored position, rather than a servant’s role.
Having a portrait taken was an exclusive practice usually reserved for wealthy white nobility or religious leaders. This means the sheer existence of this painting is groundbreaking as it depicts an upper-class black man from this era.
Unfortunately, not all depictions of black Africans in Baroque have the same energy as Mostaert’s. A 1688 Baroque painting by Benedetto Gennari depicts the notorious libertine Hortense Mancini (Duchesse de Mazarin) as Diana the Huntress.
Diana is the goddess of the hunt and wild animals in ancient Roman religion, the equivalent to the Greek Artemis. In the painting, Mancini is surrounded by Black slave children wearing collars and intermingling with her pet dogs. It’s a horrific depiction that explicitly equates Black children to animals.
To make matters worse, there are plenty of other Renaissance paintings that adopt this same tone, making it difficult to reference this body of work without acknowledging its dark truths.
Given the Baroque art movement’s problematic and racist history, the concept of ‘African Baroque’ is rather ironic. It certainly doesn’t seem fitting for a high school dance theme, even if it’s been adapted to incorporate modern African art.
Ultimately, we cannot overlook the entire historical context of any forms of art while paying tribute to them in the 21st century. Let’s be better.
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