A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
A chaise is a chair. But a chaise lounge is a very specific type of furniture, a sort of chair-bed. The reclining form of the chaise lounge forces the sitter to lean back—whether comfortably supported or uncomfortably propped up by the structure’s angles. Designed to be a “long chair,” as the translation for the original French term chaise longue conveys, the sloping lines of this seemingly indulgent furnishing appeal to our body’s desire to sit, rest, and relax.
Artist and designer Simone Brewster debuted Negress chaise lounge in 2010 at the London Design Festival.1 I encountered Negress, and Brewster’s side table, Mammy, in 2011 in the exhibition Flock: Tell Stories, for which Brewster had been an organizer. I had never before experienced furniture that engaged with the black female body and its visual histories of representation. Why make a chair called Negress?
Brewster’s chaise is made of stained (ebonized) tulipwood and leather with an upholstered cushion. Taking on this type of chair as a formal provocation for her design vision, Brewster chooses to shape Negress with deconstructed elements of the Black female body. She has written poignantly about her inspirations, which include seeing the voluptuous bodies in Chris Ofili’s solo exhibition at Tate Britain in 2010. Her design work also takes inspiration from two paintings in particular: The Negress (1923) by Tarsila do Amaral and The Murmur (1943) by Wifredo Lam.2
Tarsila do Amaral, The Negress (A Negra), 1923. Wifredo Lam, The Murmur, 1943.
A common element in both works is an emphasis on the breast. Each work calls attention to parts of the female body in ways that are compelling and uncomfortable, with looming questions about who the images are for and who exactly they represent. By transposing two-dimensional anatomical imagery into a three-dimensional structure designed for leisurely repose, Brewster’s literally builds the chaise out of the Black female body, emphasizing how it has been positioned and presented for the gaze of others. Negress inserts itself into this canonical history of Black women’s representation, engaging and challenging its legacies.
Formally, Negress consists of a wooden base structure supported by four legs, topped off with an upholstered cushion. As Brewster explains:
The form of the pieces are deconstructions of the Black female body inspired by African sculpture which have been reinterpreted three dimensionally, taking references from both Primitivism and Cubism. Each supporting element stands alone as a monument to the breast, leg and face…3
Each leg is different: one front leg is a circular breast form, similar to the ones in Lam’s The Murmur; the other front leg is an oblong form, similar to the large, exposed breast in The Negress by Amaral. The two legs supporting the back of the chaise play on the shapes seen in Lam’s work: a silhouetted face and an elongated breast.
Negress is a functional object that must support the weight of the human body. In choosing to create a support system made up of disparate body parts—not only anatomical “legs”— Brewster adds layers of narrative to the work, revealing the myriad forms of physical support emanating from the Black female body. The curved mass of the breast and the tip of the nipple are positioned as pressure points in the chaise’s construction. Speaking about Negress and Mammy, Brewster describes a “broken woman” whose “voluminous parts…uphold the surfaces which rest upon them, providing function. Quietly in service.”4 While the stark ebonized tulipwood is shaped into the quiet elegance of the “long chair,” the form is dependent upon the assemblage of supple parts that enable the chaise to function, that is to stand on its own and to bear the weight of the sitter.
Brewster was intentional about creating work that could be used, instead of sculpture or ornamental decorative arts. “I decided to make an object with function, specifically because it was an object which would be expected to serve silently instead of ‘speaking out’. Tables, chairs, beds, stands, these objects live to support our lifestyle.” Given this expectation of being in service to someone, Negress contends with the history of decorative arts objects fashioned to resemble Black bodies. Black figurines, such as sugar “servers” in the shape of Black women representing “Africa,” 5 and the larger body of domestic objects referred to as blackamoors, circulated globally as prized indicators of one’s class and taste for luxury. Understanding the power of symbolic representation, Brewster’s Negress evokes not only the primitivist art histories she describes as “hidden meanings” in her work, but also nods toward the racial exoticism in histories of design and decorative art that come with their own relationship to Transatlantic slavery and imperial economies.
Brewster chooses a title that also plays upon the associations that the word “Negress” itself holds in art, whether in reference to known individuals, allegorical figures, or racialized “types.”6 In literature, Negress may refer to “anonymous” Black women whose role is typically as some type of “help”—enslaved, indentured, or hired hands. Brewster’s design calls attention to the Negress as a composite portrait in the ways we have been trained to recognize that word in the arts and letters. Meanwhile the functional element of Brewster’s work allows for further envisioning the possibilities for design as narrative and storytelling in dialogue with history.
Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of a Madeleine Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, La Negresse, 1868.
(formerly known as Portrait of a Negress), 1800.
Comprised of deconstructed, abstracted forms and re-appropriated from colonial and modernist art histories, Brewster’s Negress is visually iconic with a subversive monumentality. It is a bold, black composition evincing beauty, grace, strength, and vitality molded into a functional object that is far from “quiet.” Once you begin looking, it speaks. In forcing the sitter’s body to interact not only with its form and its support system, but also with its ideas, Negress stakes a claim for design as a critical practice for Black makers. Designing with a (side) eye on history, Brewster complicates and expands on the luxury of leaning back in silence on this chaise lounge to remind us on whose back, whose body, we are leaning for support.
This is one of four essays from the twentieth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- Born in London to Caribbean parents, Simone Brewster holds degrees in architecture and design and her creative practice encompasses furniture, sculptural objects, jewelry, and painting.
- Brewster’s Negress chaise lounge takes its title directly from a painting by Tarsila do Amaral, a Brazilian painter, whose work was titled “A Negra” or “the black woman” in Portuguese, and sometimes translated as “the negress.” Brewster’s other direct influence is Wifredo Lam, a painter of Afro-Cuban and Chinese background, whose use of African-derived mask forms and anthropomorphic bulbous, gourd-like breasts in The Murmur is typical of his most well-known works such as The Jungle.
- Brewster recalls researching the decorative objects in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where images of black women (and men) often indicate an objects origin as a “server”—a domestic object typically used during mealtimes. “Blackamoors” are another version of this trope in which black bodies are shaped into objects such as tables and stools. Such luxury objects denoted status and import of the owner, not dissimilar to how the slave owner’s status might be reflected in the luxury trappings worn by his enslaved “property.” See Monica L. Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); Adrienne L. Childs, Ornamental Blackness (Yale University Press, forthcoming), and Simone Brewster “Hidden Meanings”: http://simonebrewster.co.uk/blog/2016/7/30/hidden-meanings-negress-mammy.)
- Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas are among the contemporary black artists who have responded to and explored ideas about the “Negress” in art. Scholars Suzanne Cesaire, Hortense Spillers, and Huey Copeland have also engaged ideas about black femaleness that are useful touchpoints for further discussion about the term “Negress.” See Kara Walker, “Interview: The Melodrama of ‘Gone with the Wind,’” Art21: Art in the Twenty-First Century (September 2003): https://art21.org/read/kara-walker-the-melodrama-of-gone-with-the-wind/. See Huey Copeland, “In the Wake of the Negress,” in Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, ed. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 480-97.