Naomi and the "Palatable Negresse"
Naomi Campbell's appearance in men's magazine Playboy in 1999 caused widespread controversy. The photographs are stunning, but Janet Momo argues these post-modern pictures underline what Frantz Fanon called the demand for the 'Negresse' ... ' but only if...(she) is made palatable in a certain way'. The works of Playboy photographer Lachapelle and Ommer, his precursor, "perpetuate racist stereotypes of Black women's sexuality through the camera obscura of desire," she says.
Playboy's chocolate Jungle-bunny - by Janet Momo
A supermodel posing for Playboy at the height of her career. Why does it have to mean any more than that? Because when a famous Black woman is depicted in pornography the privileged white patriarchal gaze is affirmed once more. Are these pictures depicting Campbell as the 'noble savage'? Wearing green boots in one photograph turns her into the 'primitive earth woman' her hand rests on the hind leg of the leopard implying bestial activity. Why does this picture avoid censorship? Because patriarchal colonial ideology has naturalised this trope of Black woman as bestial until it no longer shocks. Remember the image of Black singer and model Grace Jones growling inside a cage.
Each Playboy picture of Naomi displays her as 'a seductress of ordinary men'. Photographer David Lachapelle puts Campbell on a breakfast table laden with candles; white phallic objects. The setting is affluent, middle-class; the sub-text is that the voyeuristic reader can have her for breakfast, she does not need to be taken by force. This picture is targeted at men of power and status who can be interpolated into the ideal subject position of fantasy.
Like Lachapelle, Uwe Ommer is a white photographer renowned for his successful 1995 publication Black Ladies. The book claims Ommer's 'aesthetic sense has always been best pleased by the bodies of black women - for him the epitome of beauty'. In what context? I would argue Black Ladies is the photographic precursor of Lachapelle's Naomi Campbell, whether their images are intentionally racist or not. What is creative about rehearsing tired old colonial cliches? Both photographers perpetuate racist stereotypes of Black women's sexuality through the camera obscura of desire.
The introduction defines Ommer's photographs as 'purely what they show, no more no less'; the main difference between the 'postcard' format and Playboy's photographs are that the postcards are more like snapshots with less airbrushing and no surreal backgrounds. In a picture similar to Lachapelle's Campbell in which white candles represent the missing power of the white phallus, Ommer depicts a Gothic-looking, semi-clad black woman wearing an arm bracelet. The candle illuminates the cave. The hairstyle is similar to Campbell's perhaps because of the 'urgent need' for the 'white gaze' to see the Black woman westernised.
Frantz Fanon wrote of the "quest for the... (Negresse), they are in demand; (she) is needed, but only if... (she) is made palatable in a certain way.' The weaved or relaxed hairstyles of both pictures satisfy this appetite for the 'palatable Negresse'. Ommer depicts his model with an unveiled breast, whilst her long hair covers the other breast. Whereas we see Campbell clad in a millennium Zulu vest top with uncovered breast and St Trinian's public school thigh-high socks. Is Naomi the bourgeois savage and Ommer's model a more simplistic, primitive native? Yet, Naomi's uncovered breast signifies the uninhibited Black woman. In the picture of Ommer's model the reader is spared complete darkness by the precious candle. The sultry model looks on as the light surrounding her depicts tones and shadows of 'Browning'. Thus the reader can be seduced not only by her image but also by her aura because the white candle has brought her beauty to light. More relevant is the way she clasps the candle the invincible phallic object of power - the 'scopic eye'. She holds the power, but she lends it to the viewer, thereby granting permission to gaze to their fill.
The reader can imagine that they have control through the gaze and that she is conquerable in a dark place. This is symbolic of the preferred reader, who imagines that they are in Africa the secret and 'Dark Continent'. Obtaining gratification from her image and the specific space the candle occupies, allows the 'scopic eye' to believe that their white genitalia is being clasped by the black woman. In Ommer's visual language she is the ultimate slave beauty.
Now we see Naomi wearing an oversized Afro wig and surrounded by fruit. Not only did the colonial adventurers pillage the fruits of Africa's soil, they also ravaged the women. She is served up; it is simultaneously sexy and disturbing, echoing the trope of black woman as 'comestible'. Campbell's happy face suggests a willing collusion in the exploitation of Black 'identity' while the playful juxtaposition of the ridiculously oversized Afro and cushion of fruit parodies Black Pantherism. Lachapelle toys with icons of 'Blackness' undermining the proud tradition of Black radicalism with white liberalism in the house journal of their sexual fantasies. Here is Campbell in a lizard bikini and matching court shoes straddling the ears of a huge chocolate Playboy logo; who is the real 'chocolate jungle-bunny' in this image?
Raw natural setting
In comparison to Ommer, Lachapelle is subtle and ironic. Ommer's portrayals suggest a nurturing mother-earth, her beauty clear for all to see in its raw natural setting - simple backgrounds representing humble uncultivated living.
Ommer seems to prefer his black women butt naked on all fours crawling in his direction. Most of the shots focus on body structures. Emphasis is placed on protruding buttocks and the blackness of the models' skins is highlighted whenever possible. Ommer's models are naturally beautiful and 'unadulterated by the artifice' of make-up, unlike wicked, fully made-up and glamorous Naomi. The majority of Ommer's postcards depict models wearing head-wraps or shawls covering their hair and the rest feature relaxed or weaved hairstyles. In one exception a pile of rope is dumped on the model's head, equating it with the texture of African hair.
Ommer foregrounds the black body and represses the individuating face and hair. In contrast Lachapelle worships Naomi's entire being. The reader can worship too but gratification is always deferred as she is 'taboo woman'. In one picture she is draped in virginal white fur - the untouchable and untouched child woman; in another she is wrapped up in cerise tape - out of bounds.
Black culture attacked
Freud's classic definition is that: 'On one hand taboo is sacred... on the other... dangerous, forbidden, unclean.' (Totem and Taboo) Lachapelle toys with notions of taboo but only in the limited version of taboo as simply prohibited. The reader can ogle in the secret of 'unificatory bonding' but not touch. Sex becomes a way of attacking Black culture.
Freud sugggests that, '...at the root of the prohibition there is invariably a hostile impulse... Basically a form of neurosis that compensates for the underlying issue a fear, 'of touching phobia. In the case of taboo, the prohibited touching is obviously not to be understood in an exclusively sexual sense, but taken in the more general sense of attacking, of gaining control... Sexual needs are not capable of bonding men in the same way as the demands of self-preservation.'
The representation of Naomi Campbell in Playboy are about keeping us firmly in our place. Robert Miles writes, "the complexity of European representations was... ordered around the view that... they were superior by virtue of their civilisation ... achievements of world travel and trade" (Racism). This is worth bearing in mind when we see naked Naomi wearing Masai jewellery on a spacecraft. She is reaching out to an astronaut who appears to be preparing for penetration. The alien about to embrace western civilisation?
Erotic object of desire
Perhaps, Playboy's centre-spread is the most degrading of all. Campbell seems to be having sex with a leopard on all fours in 'the Negresse', position favoured by slave masters who aggressed Black women. Campbell's portrayal, can only be understood in relation to what cannot be seen of the invisible white gaze/white phallus. The leopard functions as a substitute for the dangerous and powerful forbidden force. The absent phallus - the leopard must be energised with power because the desire is taboo, the black woman is a taboo subject to the white male. Therefore the absent phallus must find a secret way to channel its lust to the erotic object of desire - the Black woman.
Ommer's 1995 shot of a model on all fours bears a striking resemblance to Naomi with the leopard. Against the white sand, her back is arched emphasising her buttocks mule-like - she is in the Negresse position crawling on all fours in search of western civilisation. Stuart Hall theorises this response to difference thus, 'That rationalisation of "other" makes it acceptable for lines to be drawn to distinguish between the cultures.' For it is political difference and we are all political figures with a responsibility for our representation and history - in the war over 'meaning' and 'definition.' The sub-text of the photographer's work is a presentation of subordination and weakness. These images are a text of fallacy, fetishism and 'Orientalism' through the prism of a latter-day slave master. Hall writes of such stereotyping: 'It reduces, essentialises, naturalises and fixes difference.'
The codes and conventions in these discursive practices embody ideological inferences of a stereotypical Black woman. Naomi Campbell's status is apparent - she is a household name posing for Playboy. And that is the door through which all these offensive and familiar versions of Black womanhood enter. She has legitimised it and perpetuated stereotypes while supposedly taking charge of them.
The strapline on the Playboy article is 'she works hard for the money'.
Should Black women with money and status be marketed as prostitutes? It's a silly question as pornography's preferred signification of women is always as a commodity. Pictures are more powerful and corrosive than words in these image-biased times. Campbell has often lashed out at the fashion industry for their ill-treatment of her, complaining that she has been wheeled out on the cat-walk as an 'exotic' object. Yet, in Playboy, she allows herself to be exploited in a process which reproduces the negative stereotypes of Black women. Perhaps, nearing 30, the pay cheque was too big to resist.
Janet Momo lectures on Cultural Ideology at the Black Media Institute, is a freelance journalist and is currently researching for a PhD in racism and alienation. Born in Rivers State, Nigeria, and now in her early thirties, Ms. Momo has a BA degree in Art.
This article appears with kind permission from the Black Media Journal
"the definitive guide to Britain's media and arts world from African, Caribbean and Asian perspectives".
No.2. Spring issue 2000 - Deconstructing
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Sex and racism: the historical context
Want to know More? Read On!
O, Ye Daughters of Africa Awake!
Blacks have long played a part in the erotic dreams and sexual fantasies of white men and women in western society. John A. Williams, a distinguished African American literary figure, has written of "the importance Black people seem to have in the sexual fantasies of Whites in the United States and Europe (an impression that is often reflected in the way many Blacks see themselves)...") See De Costa Wills, Miriam, Reginald Martin. and Roseann P. Bell eds. (1992). Erotique Noire - Black Erotica. London: Transworld Publishers. William's says "There is little doubt this reflects the white-black sexual images born of the plantation system. See also Calvin C. Hernton's, Sex and Racism in America, and The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life.
Origins in plantation slavery in the Americas
"Brought naked from the ship's hold to the auction block, they were assessed for breeding potential...Brutalized and sexually exploited - and stereotyped - by white slaveholders, Black women bore mulatto offspring for their masters, or were forced to conceive babies for economic gain...She was to be had for the taking." Busby, Margaret, ed. (1991), Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, p. xxxv.)
Disrespect and pressures in post-war Britain
"Black women are faced with no other prospect than to fill the jobs which the indigenous workforce were no longer willing to do, in the servicing, semi-skilled and unskilled sectors." Bryan, Beverly, Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe, eds. (1985), Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain. London: Virago, p.25.
Testament of Truth
"we have seen beyond your lies and disguises,
and we have mastered the language of words.
we have mastered speech
(By Abena Busia, "Liberation", in Busby, Daughters of Africa, p.869-70)
This "knowing", in
the Black woman, increasingly finds its expression in political actions
"through connecting herself with liberation struggles in the Black
Movement, in the Third World Movement and in the Women's Movement,"
avow writers like Jayne Cortez and June Jordan (Busby, p. xxxxvii.)