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"The identity of the women is unclear."

Updated: Feb 8

"I decided I’m going to give you pregnancy in your face — and that’s what I did." Renée Cox

I love Tate Britain

 

 Tate Britain sits right next to Chelsea College of Arts, by the river, in a quiet corner of Pimlico.

I enjoy wandering in its endless galleries and massive swirling staircase. I love the quietness of its walls, its bold contemporary installations, and the fact that it is seldom crowded.

Tate Britain was the first museum I took my firstborn to when she was a baby - a safe haven for her to roam about on all fours.

 

Years later, as I am the one roaming about on both feet, I oddly end up in a room named "Exiles and Dynasty" in the Historic British Art wing, facing portraits of translucent-skinned, wide-eyed noblemen and women.

I am not quite sure what I am doing here.

16/17th century British portraiture has never quite been my thing.

Yet, in that room I remain. After all, if these works survived as memorabilia of ancient times, I might as well pay my respects.

 

I stop and stare at women. Some pregnant, some holding newborns. I read the labels carefully to check out their names and perhaps look them up on Wikipedia, but it soon appears that many remain anonymous. 

It is noted, however, that they are promoting a "dynastic event" or "producing an heir".

I keep reading "unknown woman" or "identity unsure". These are dutiful women to be respected for bearing a (noble) child. They had famous, wealthy husbands, who paid an artist to spend hours looking at them, studying them, drawing them, painting them, because what they were doing was heroic* and ought to be celebrated. Still, their names did/does not matter.

 

According to Jacqueline Rose, “on the other side of idealisation, war and childbirth are recognised in classical thought as two moments when the fabric of social order is rent.” 

Can you actually imagine a 16th century portrait of a nobleman set up for war labelled "Random Lad on a Horse"? **






Anonymity in portraiture is often inherent to the status of the subject. In other words, it has to do with class and race. I imagine a peasant woman pregnant somewhere in 17th Century England, whose portrait no-one would have bothered to paint. The recent restitution of Madeleine's name is still sometimes viewed as anachronic and irrelevant (I shall spare you the French La Croix opinion piece arguing against it).

 

Renee Cox's  Yo Mama offers a deep reflection on the subject of anonymity and feeds viewers with a statement: there she is, a black woman, artist, pregnant nonetheless (her children also feature on some of her photographs), fully owning her identity and situation at that moment. Sometimes, a name and a body are enough to be considered a transgression and in that case, the representation of the maternal body - the black maternal body no less - opened up what Ngozi Onwurah called "spaces of merging and sameness"***.

Those very spaces I found in the Exiles and Dynasties room of Tate Britain.

 

***

 

* Let's not forget that bearing child was a risky task. Moreover, a noblewoman unable to produce an heir (of course, infertility was seen as inherently feminine and often STILL IS) could also sometimes face dire consequences.

** I very much encourage you to Google "anonymous portraiture in 16th century England".

*** Feminist Art and the Maternal, LISS A., Ned 2009



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