Robin Coste Lewis (National Book Award for Poetry Winner) “Voyage of the Sable Venus”

It’s actually the history of black female bodies in art. So, that’s part of why I did the project. It exceeds the national boundaries and even the history of America by several millennia. It goes back even to 38,000 years, into prehistoric images of black female figures.”    ~Robin Coste Lewis, National Book Award for Poetry Winner

Voyage of the Sable Venus
Etched Image discussed in the book by Robin Coste Lewis, “Voyage of the Sable Venus”

“So, it’s a redux of Botticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell, but, in this case, it’s a black woman on the clam shell. And she’s being drawn through the water by Cupid and Triton or Neptune. I’m not sure. But instead of Neptune having a trident, right, he has a flag of the Union Jack, so it turns out to be a pro-slavery image.

And it is based on a poem, also “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” titled “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” that speaks about how — it’s a pro-rape poem. It’s disgusting, how to rape a white woman or a black woman slave at night is the same, because you can’t see their bodies, 1782.

So, when I heard the title, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” this is the whole experience of looking at that image, where you’re both completely compelled — it’s a gorgeous image — until you realize that it’s pro-slavery.

And then the title itself was so gorgeous to me, “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” Right? So, the complete contradiction of what the image performed and what the title said seemed to me to be a cue to look further. And so the more I looked and the more titles I found, the weirder it got and the more interesting it got.”

~ROBIN COSTE LEWIS (Quote about the “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” the first collection from Robin Coste Lewis, winner of this year’s National Book Award for poetry. Lewis discussed her debut, her readers and her influences with Jeffrey Brown (PBS News Hour) at the Miami Book Festival.

Link To View:   Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus” (Lit Hub)

Link to Poetry Foundation Bio for Robin Coste Lewis

Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems (by Robin Coste Lewis) book cover
Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems (by Robin Coste Lewis) book cover

In her Prologue, Robin Coste Lewis Writes:

What follows is a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalogue entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.

The formal rules I set for myself were simple:

1) No title could be broken or changed in any way. While the grammar is completely modified–I erased all periods, commas, semi-colons–each title was left as published, and was not syntactically annotated, edited, or fragmented.

2) “Art” included paintings, sculpture, installations, photography, lithographs, engraving, any work on paper, etc–all those traditional mediums now recognized by the Western art-historical project. However, because black female figures were also used in ways I could never have anticipated, I was forced to expand that definition to include other material and visual objects, such as combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives, table legs.

3) At some point, I realized that museums and libraries (in what I imagine must have been a hard-won gesture of goodwill, or in order not to appear irrelevant) had removed many 19thcentury historically-specific markers, such as slave, colored, or Negro from their titles or archives, and replaced these words instead with the sanitized, but perhaps equally vapid African-American. In order to replace this historical erasure of slavery (however well-intended), I re-erased the post-modern “African-American” and changed all those titles back. That is, I re-corrected the corrected horror to allow that original horror to stand. My intent was to explore and record not only the history of human thought, but also how normative and complicit artists, art institutions and art historians have all been in participating in–if not creating–this history.

4) As an homage, I decided to include titles of art by black women artists and curators, whether the art included a black female figure or not. Most of this work was created over the last century, with its deepest saturation occurring since the Cold War. I also included work by black queer artists, regardless of gender, because this body of work has made consistently some of the richest, most elegant, least pretentious contributions to Western art interrogations of gender and race.

5) In a few instances, it was more fruitful to include a museum’s description of the art, rather than the title itself. This was especially true for colonial period.

6) Sometimes I chose to include female figures I believed the Western art world simply had not realized was a black woman passing for white.

7) Finally, no title was repeated.

All is suffering is a bad modernist translation,” Robin Coste Lewis explains. “What the Buddha really said is: It’s all a mixed bag. Shit is complicated. Everything’s fucked up. Everything’s gorgeous.”