Legacies: Commemorating the bicentenary of British abolition

From The Sable Venus to The Birth of Venus, 1793-2005

An extract from the Trade and Empire exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery

Pro-slavery images such as Thomas Stothard’s The Sable Venus of 1793 were as much part of the propaganda war as abolitionist images. Twenty first century viewers of Stothard’s image should not be too shocked by its wilful distortion, however, as The Sable Venus is more representative of the consequences of the slave trade than of its reality. Its portrayal of luxurious ease is a projection of the surplus value attendant on this black body. This will create a more easeful life in Europe and America because of a supply of labour that has no wage costs and will eventually reproduce itself at no extra cost.

The price of the phenomenal expansion of human possibilities in the Atlantic world was paid by captive Africans and their descendants with their blood and sweat. There is, of course, none of the blood and sweat in this image, but much of the enhanced possibilities that slavery opened up for Europeans. The preponderance of white cherubs cosseting the figure of Venus betray the importance of her labour (and procreative) power to the development of Western capitalism; a system within which she is a disposable commodity as surely as the products her labour will produce. Donkor’s Triptych of 2005 speaks back to this image, surrounding the Venus with pornographic images from the eighteenth century, making the point that sexual and economic exploitation feed off each other in the culture of slavery.

The Whitworth Art Gallery does not hold copyright of these images, for further visual information realting to Donkor's work see the Resolution Gallery of Digital Art http://resolutiongallery.com/web/component/option,com_gallery2/Itemid,94/?g2_itemId=1240 
and for Thomas Stothard’s The Sable Venus look at the All Posters.com site http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Voyage-of-Sable-Venus-Angola-to-West-Indies-History-of-All-the-British-Colonies-Edwards-1801-Posters_i4052039_.htm.