My brown skin felt like a threat

This week’s blog post features a short essay written by Gracie Oddie-James, winner of the Trenchard-Cox Art History Abroad Scholarship 2020 and recipient of a two-week summer course in Italy (which, I hope, Gracie will be able to enjoy when things become a little more normal). Established in memory of former Arts Society President Sir Trenchard Cox and run jointly by The Arts Society and Art History Abroad, this scholarship is open each year to students aged 16-18 with an artistic curiosity who are asked to submit two creative and thought-provoking essays on the themes of art they love and art they hate.


Gracie's essays stood out for their strong personal interpretation and the direct and conversational style with which they were written.


I have selected her essay on Hate to share with you.


What makes this short piece so striking - and relevant - at this moment in time is the question of race and power, as viewed through time and art. It certainly is thought-provoking at a time when the news is filled with clashes over race, civil rights and cynical displays of the (military) power of leaders. I wonder how artists will capture the tragedy of today’s injustice and inequality of human beings. But now, over to Grace:




I came across the Trenchard-Cox Scholarship, and Art History Abroad through my wonderfully, witty and eccentric Art History teachers Rosa Goodman and Benjamin Walton. I am greatly indebted to them, and am extremely grateful to The Arts Society for facilitating my Art Historical curiosity as and when Corona allows. Seeing as I cannot thank my teachers for getting me through my exams (as the examinations of 2020 are no more), I can focus my thanks upon the greatest gift they offered me. The extremely important, important lesson, to never take anything too seriously.


Hate


A church is a place of unquestioning love and unity. Well, it’s meant to be. In Venice, this idea compromised and challenged by many, but one particular church in the allegedly serene city challenges Christianity’s unity than any other: The Frari.


Titian’s annunciation burning brightly with its mandorla of light illuminates the sacred altar. But before one can reach it, you are confronted with a much darker prospect.


A dramatically baroque tomb, holding the bones of some withered doge, incarcerates four Black men; slaves for eternity. Like roadkill, it’s so grotesque you can’t quite stop looking at it, the Titian becomes irrelevant, inconsequential. These men are degraded to slavery even under the eye of God, in the home of Christ, their suffering abandoned and ignored. I say men, and not statues because their individualised faces, painted with pain elevated them to reality. The onyx black of their skin is so opaque it seems to trap whatever humanity they had within them; their eyes so piercing white they seem to implore you to meet their anguished grimaces. Their ragged drapings are not idealised but emphasised in their disrepair to promulgate the foursomes’ degradation. Although, no sympathy is encouraged by the sculptor. I feel the aim of the artist was for the viewer to revel in the novelty of their size, the shock factor, perhaps for us to appreciate the doge’s ability to possess such colossuses even in death.


In a space dedicated for the worship of God, his children and their safety, the arrogance, cruelty and pointed egotism of this doge drew me to tears. I stood before it helpless. I could do nothing to relinquish these men of their eternal pain. The humanity of their faces spoke to the doge’s ability to rob them of it. My brown skin felt like a threat, was I the next to be made less than human by the greed of a power zealot? My spine felt cold in my back. It was not long until, like a blaze, it was ignited by hatred. This was the imagery that validated the rape of my ancestors, that enslaved my forefathers, that celebrated the pain of men, women and children who had lives like any other.


Perhaps most painfully, it reminded me that although I revel in the past, find joy in exploring the worlds of eras gone by, I would not be welcome in worlds I celebrate. The things that I love, the 18th century, were borne on the backs of slaves, and paid for in their blood.



This blog is composed by Florian Schweizer, CEO of The Arts Society, and made up of contributions by him and invited guest bloggers.