The recent use of earrings fashioned in the images of exotic black women by Dolce and Gabbana during a fashion show has caused understandable controversy. Critics charge the imagery is too reminiscent to slave-era derived caricatures of blacks, like Mammy or Little Sambo. D&G has denied racism is at play, and instead point to a history of black-a-moor decorative art on the Italian peninsula dating back to the medieval era, where blacks were numbered among the Arab-Berber armies that invaded Sicily in the 10th century. The truth may lie somewhere between the two claims. While black-a-moor decorative art indeed predates slavery and black caricatures like Mammy, their history is rooted in the European imagination–and come with inherent contradictions. As shown in a previous post, in medieval European stories and legends, black-a-moors appear as threatening figures associated with the Muslim world. But, as I discuss here, they could also take the guise of benevolent allies. Over time, these varied depictions would meld with the coming era of African slavery, where skin color became increasingly tied to servitude and bondage.
Last month fashion icons Dolce & Gabbana sent models down the runway sporting earrings carved in the likeness of black women. The uproar was instantaneous. One story described the earrings as “slave-like,” linking them to a long history of black caricatures. Another lampooned D&G for engaging in “cartoonish, debasing, subaltern imagery that would make even your politically incorrect Grandpa think twice.” The official media term for them became, “slave earrings.”
A quick word on my choice of header art. The piece is called “The Moorish Warrior,” by William Merritt Chase (1844-1916). I first came across the painting while strolling through the Brooklyn Museum of Art several years ago. I wasn’t familiar with the artist, but I knew the style–part of what was known as the Orientalist movement, which created picturesque paintings of the Near East. Like every other graduate student in the social sciences, I had the pleasure of reading Edward Said’s groundbreaking work, Orientalism.