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  • The Specter of the BlackamoorFiguring Africa and the Orient
  • Ella Shohat

To speak of the Blackamoor figure is to speak of several intertwined imaginaries, especially along the East/West and North/South double geographical axis. A hybrid of the African Black and the Muslim Moor, the Blackamoor figure condenses representations often conceptualized in isolation within the compartmentalized cartographies of the various Area Studies. Scrutiny of the Blackamoor, in this sense, helps shed light on forgotten discursive continuities as well as on historical connectivities across continents and oceans; in this case, those operating along the winding Mediterranean shores of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Manufactured in European workshops, the Blackamoor can on one level be analyzed as part of an ornamental art that reflects various aesthetic tendencies while also reflecting the taste of its producers and consumers. On another level, the Blackamoor can be examined critically, as a stereotypical imaging of the racialized and gendered Black body. Here, however, I will pose a different set of questions: Can the putatively reassuring and domesticated Blackamoor also be viewed as a visual manifestation of an ongoing European anxiety about its "others?" Might this image of Blackamoor docility testify indirectly to a doubly repressed fear toward the neighboring continents of Africa and Asia? Could the apparent civility of the ornamental Blackamoor mask anxieties about racial mixing, cultural syncretism, and intellectual influence?

exotica as historical erasure

As a cross between the iconographies of "the Black" and "the Moor," this phantasmatic figure acts as a recurrent reminder of the geographical proximity between the shores of Europe and Africa to the South, and Asia to the East, thus evoking the Western trope of "the-barbarians-at-the-gate," whether the gate be that of Vienna, or the straits of Gibraltar, or the Dardanelles. (Centuries after the Inquisition and the Expulsion of the Moors, the new immigrant barbarians from the South clamor at the gates of Fortress Europe.) As polished icons in domestic metropolitan spaces, Blackamoor statues have a fraught relation to Europe's own self-definition, especially in the wake of colonialism and its "civilizing mission." Conceived together [End Page 158]

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Figure 1.

Acton Collection, XLII.B.1.1-2 © New York University, The Acton Photograph Archive, Villa La Pietra, Florence.

within a shared Eurocentric vision, Africa and Asia were often housed under the same academic umbrella within post-Enlightenment Orientalist scholarship—evidenced, for example, in the very institutionalization of the University of London's "School of Oriental and African Studies." The worlds associated with Africa and Asia, meanwhile, had been sharing a long history grounded in trade exchange and cultural traffic. Until the 1869 digging of the Suez Canal—which connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and to the Indian Ocean, and facilitated the navigation of the maritime route to the "The Jewel in the Crown"—the continents of Africa and Asia had formed part of a geographical continuum.

Associated with the grandeur of the Suez Canal-opening era, Giuseppe Verdi's Aïda was first performed at the newly built Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1871 as a celebration of progress and the new imperial world order. Inspired by archeological discoveries, Aïda's scenario, written by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, told a story of ancient Egyptians who capture and enslave an Ethiopian princess, Aïda.1 In this instance of the modern staging of the archaic, the Romantic investment in civilizational origins was merged with the triumphant march of science through twinned and parallel forms of digging—the past-oriented diggings of archeology and the future-oriented diggings practiced by engineering. Conducted [End Page 159] by colonial powers, the forward-looking canal project in fact resurrected prior endeavors traced back all the way to antiquity. An historically earlier digging of another "Suez canal," connecting the Nile to the Bitter Lakes and these to the Red Sea, occurred already in seventh century BC on the orders of Pharaoh Necho II and was later completed by Darius I of Persia.2 Egyptologists often saw themselves as rescuing ancient civilization from the neglect of contemporary Egyptians, deemed unaware of the value of antiquity's treasures on...


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