Maxim Vakhovskiy is a North Carolina-living, Eastern European photographer who is creating a book full of pages and pages of naked, black women. As a gorgeous black woman who enjoys seeing other gorgeous black women, I really wanted to like this project. At first glance, it seems awesome. The artist is looking to celebrate black women from all corners of the world! Who wouldn’t be down with that?
Me. I am not down with this.
First of all, why is this man so into black ladies? Is this a fetish? This project makes me feel as uncomfortable as one of those questionable men who says things like “black women are just so smooth and sensual…like chocolate.” Portrait photographers usually aim to show the world slices of the lives of their peers. Vakhovskiy isn’t in the club. He wasn’t born to a black woman. He doesn’t live in the body of a black woman. He has an open call for women to travel to North Carolina and be in his next volume. He does not pay and he will not come to you. Being the subject of his work feels predatory, not full of praise.
Naming the project “Black Venus” also raised my eyebrows to uncomfortable heights. In the olden times,* male artists would paint nude portraits of their favorite local prostitutes or other extra-marital lovers. Not wanting to be obvious sleazeballs, the artist would title the portrait “Venus” and no one would think twice about it. Venus is the goddess of seduction, fertility, and other feminine wiles so this scenario was very appropriate in the post-classical art world.
Let’s not forget about the much more recent “Hottentot Venus,” a black woman from what is now South Africa. Her actual name was Sara Baartman and she was carted around Europe during the early 19th century. Audiences would pay money to see her nude or nearly nude body displayed on stage as part of a freak show. After she died, her genitals and brain were preserved and put on display in a museum until 1974. The museum refused to allow her remains to be buried in her own home country until 2002.
I found out about Vakhovskiy’s project from the fantastic website, TheNuBlack. His work was featured in their “Image of the Day” category and was praised for being a positive depiction of black women. I cannot disagree that the photographs are lovely. Vakhovskiy is clearly a talented artist with a great eye. The women depicted are beautiful and make my heart sing. But the concept behind this project is lousy with the stains of a past/present that refuses to accept the fact that the black female body is not fair-game to use in any way you please.
The black female body is not public property.