As I walk down the staircase of my childhood home, I'm greeted by the stern gaze of a man in a black leather jacket. This silver gelatin print stares me in the eyes, but has never had meaning for me until recently. My father, an art historian, collected work from around the world. I never blinked twice at the white man who stared at me on my way to the kitchen. Who was he? None other than Robert Mapplethorpe himself, in a black and white self-portrait from 1980. Upon beginning my research for my final project in Dr Jane’a Johnson’s class Photography and Race: Blackness and The Self, I struggled to find black queer artists in RISD’s collection. Instead, I found pieces by Robert Mapplethorpe. The course focused on the history of black photography, addressing topics such as black representation, black fetishization, and the racial history behind color photography. Creating a project around a work in the RISD Museum’s collection was an exciting challenge and I went into my meeting with a museum curator excited to discover work by black queer artists. When I came out of the meeting with a surprisingly small list, I started to question why the collection didn’t include a larger multitiude of queer artists of color. What does this mean for visitors and students of color? How can the institution diversify its collection?
“You cannot become what you cannot see” —Marian Wright Edelman
The RISD museum has three pieces by Mapplethorpe, none of which feature the black body. However, it is still important to acknowledge his photographs of the black body and their meaning, as they are often categorized as his most sought-after work. His images that feature the black body speak more to fetishization than representation. Mapplethorpe cared little about race equality, and I seek to counter this negative portrayal of the black body—specifically black men—by presenting queer POC artists that the museum could look into acquiring.
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed” -—Susan Sontag1
“To start, photography was imperial from the very beginning, as I explained throughout my book. It was shaped and institutionalized to facilitate the reproduction of imperial rights, already acquired through other technologies of forcible extraction.” —Ariella Azoulay2
I'll keep my examples and opinions on Mapplethorpe’s work brief; you, the reader, can form your own opinion of his work on the black body. Look at the photos he's taken of the black man carefully.3 Look at the work others have done to highlight his wrongdoings. His photos don’t speak of representation and the silencing of queer voices, as some have argued. They instead represent Mapplethorpe's perverse and problematic fetishization of the black body. Look at how these men stand compared to their white counterparts; look at the photos of the men on their own and how dehumanizes and exotisizes them. Mapplethorpe uses stereotypes of the black man for his own gain and pleasure.
“He (Mapplethorpe) cared little really about sexual politics [or] racial equality…He played the racial stereotypes of sexually dangerous African-American males to shock the rich elite” —Mapplethorpe: Assault With a Deadly Camera, Jack Fritscher4
Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Lyle Ashton Harris
Cameras gave to Black Folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images. Hence it is essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationship of black life to the visual, start making, make photography central. Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construction of an oppositional black aesthetic. —bell hooks5
Jaleel Marques Porcha
Though rarely articulated as such, the camera became in black life a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation as well as a means by which alternative images could be produced. —bell hooks6
Below is a non-exhaustive list of other artists I suggest the museum’s curators look into or take note of. I also suggest looking further into Mapplethorpe’s work and forming your own opinion; below is also a list of articles that informed my opinions.
Cohen, Aaron E. “Robert Mapplethorpe: Dethroned.” Medium, March 19, 2018.
Nixon, Lindsay. “Distorted Love: Mapplethorpe, the Neo/Classical Sculptural Black Nude, and Visual Cultures of Transatlantic Enslavement.” Imaginations, July 25, 2019.
Donham, Donald L. The Erotics of History: An Atlantic African Example. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2018.
Tito Crichton-Stuart is a student in apparel design at RISD, and developed this project for a 2021 course taught by Dr. Jane'a Johnson, Photography and Race: Blackness and the Self.
- 1Sontag, Susan, 1933-2004. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
- 2Azoulay, Ariella. “Free Renty! Reparations, Photography, and the Imperial Premise of Scholarship.” Hyperallergic, 8 Mar. 2020, hyperallergic.com/545667/free-renty/
- 3Sigal, Pete. Getty Blogs, 3 Oct. 2016, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Commercial Archive and the Sexualization of the Black Male Body"https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/robert-mapplethorpe-the-commercial-archive-and-the-sexualization-of-the-black-male-body/
- 4Cohen, Aaron E. “Robert Mapplethorpe: Dethroned.” Medium, Medium, 19 Mar. 2018, medium.com/@aaronecohen/robert-mapplethorpe-dethroned-851cb73c9aeb.
- 5hooks, bell. “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” Art of My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: The New Press, 1995. 54-64.
- 6hooks, bell. “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” Art of My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: The New Press, 1995. 54-64.