Adrienne L. Childs

Independent Scholar


Fellow: Fall 2012, Fall 2010

Ornamental Blackness: The Black Body in European Decorative Arts

Project Description

Ornamental Blackness: The Black Body in European Decorative Arts

Ornamental Blackness is a book project that creates a framework for understanding how the decorative arts figure into the larger discourse of representing blacks in Western visual culture. This book is the first of its kind to survey a range of diverse objects that employed the “blackamoor” as a decorative motif and develops a critical language for interpreting a brand of luxury objects that has scant attention in these terms. The vogue for representing the African body in European luxury items served to disseminate tropes of blackness throughout spaces of wealth and refinement in Europe and beyond, becoming increasingly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Objects such as porcelain figurines, clocks, light fixtures, furniture and more represented not only the aristocratic taste for exoticism but a physical manifestation of the black laboring body in the guise of fashion and décor. My work investigates the tensions inherent in the system of codes in which the black body - enslaved, reviled, feared, subjugated, and assaulted- is also the symbol of aristocratic luxury and opulence. Ornamental Blackness employs a diversified approach to the role of the symbolism in decorative arts and speaks to how the ideas presented by these objects operated in the theater of sumptuous living.

The trajectory of this book begins in the French and Saxon courts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which black servants, musicians, groomsmen and more were living symbols of luxury. It is here where humans were transformed into decorative objects that evoked the spectacle of court life. I will then examine the proliferation of objects featuring the laboring body of the blackamoor that seemed to flourish in the eighteenth century from Italy to England and France. The nineteenth century saw the increase of a luxury industry that was patronized by European and American industrialists. Objects that featured blacks remained emblems of wealth and were marketed to a growing international audience through an expanding gallery system and the rise of the Universal Exposition. Finally I will take a brief look at how the blackamoor figure resurfaces in twentieth-century America as a symbol of European stylishness in major collections of jewelry, furniture and more.

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