It was difficult to miss -a portrait of a nude African American female with her back to the camera. But somehow her brown flesh, shoulder tightened and elbow bent from the weight of her body, curved bottom partially concealed by the shadow cast by her figure was not what held my attention. Instead, it was the wide mouthed, toothless grin of the baby she was holding that stole my gaze.
It was the cover shot for an ongoing project by Eastern European born Charlotte, NC based photographer Maxim Vakhovskiy. I immediately thought it was a great photo, but after reading the title of the project and learning of the photographer's background, I knew I had to investigate further. As you'll see when you visit the site, it is full of images of black women of all shapes and hues -most of them nude. It is casually but intentionally mixed with comments from viewers who have taken a moment to engage with the project. It was the first highlighted comment (and equally important response) mixed with my nagging reflections on the title of the project that preoccupied the next hour of my morning.
rio-grande asked: I just figured out what I dislike about most naked pictures - women being sexualised. You don't do that and I thank you so much. You have women being women, being natural and free. I love it, so much. Maxim responded: My hope is to represent these beautiful individuals with authenticity and a sense of celebration. Unfortunately, socially, we are so accustomed to seeing nudity sexualized, that many of the ignorant find it hard to identify even when there are positive representations of the female body. Thank you so much for your love and for recognizing these photographs for their essential purpose.
I wrestled for a while before coming to the conclusion that I must attempt to engage. While I could write at least another 500 words about my thoughts about (based on the response) Maxim's seeming denial/ignorance of the etymological/historical/mythological origins of "Venus" AND the phrase "Black Venus" (particularly the painful history related to Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman diminutively deemed 'Black Hottentot Venus') and its brutal, tragic, and marred history, I will refrain. Instead I will simply share the brief thoughts and ultimate question I posed to Maxim on his site. Because of the character limits set by his website, I could not elaborate further. I had to rewrite my thoughts several times in order for them to make logical sense while also conveying the true essence of my sentiment considering the strict character limit.
carltonmackey asked: These images are superb -well executed and beautifully represent the essence of what these women (with your aid) are trying to express. I am not seduced by the images nor am I offended by seeing the body in its wholeness. However, I am not convinced by what you posted in response to a reader about your objectives. Your title screams sexualization. Venus IS the embodiment of sex. I'm also troubled considering the long history of this title [in regards to] black women and Sarah Baartman. Why this title? Maxim Responded: Thank you for your feedback and critical thinking. Frankly, the title for this project/book is something I’ve long struggled with, but continuously returned to during the naming process, with the support of my very muses. Much of the inspiration came from classical art — Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, versions of Madonna with Child and the like, being symbols of beauty, love, motherhood, earth-goddessness, and femininity, although at times also (inescapably) sexuality. Focusing on women of African descent and being fully aware of specific negative connotations of “Venus” in black history, I’ve undertaken the task, perhaps much bigger than me, to overturn these connotations at least within the context of my work. I’m presenting these women, or rather, they are presenting/celebrating themselves, as “Venuses” of the modern world, shattering the molds of their histories and social ideals. It is my hope that, regardless of your feelings about the title, you will continue to enjoy the photographs.
Much to the credit of Mr. Vakhovskiy, he took the time to reflect with me. It is with great respect for this artist and for art as a form of expression that I post our exchange. Part of the impetus behind the creation of the Ethics & the Arts Initiative, that I have the pleasure of directing, and 50 SHADES OF BLACK is recognizing the role of art in fostering dialogue and my desire to bridge the gap between ethics/values/faith and art.
I appreciate his candor, honesty, vulnerability, and most importantly openness to engage. I do feel that the is much more to this conversation that could be had. There are so many more aspects to be explored.
That ongoing process is what my projects and as I found out today BLACK VENUS are about.
We hope you join us in the process.