African American Studies Visual Representations of Slavery
Renee Ater
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0034


From the first encounters of Africans and Europeans to the transatlantic slave trade to the abolition of slavery to emancipation and freedom, visual representations of slavery and enslaved persons proliferated in material culture, painting, print culture, sculpture, and photography. Contemporary artists continue to explore the visual representation of slavery in multimedia and new media. The most iconic of the images of the 18th and 19th centuries are Josiah Wedgewood’s medallion of a kneeling slave, titled “Am I not a Man and as Brother?” (1787); the London Committee of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’s broadside Description of a Slave Ship (1789); and McPherson and Oliver’s medical photograph of ex-slave Gordon’s whipped, scarred back (1863). Under the rubric of “the image of the black,” scholars have considered the wide range of representations of African peoples in the art of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, in painting and print culture of the age of exploration, and in the material culture of the age of transatlantic slavery and abolition. These studies include images of Africans, of free persons in Europe and the Americas, and of the enslaved. More recently, scholars have engaged the photographic archive to understand the ways in which photography was used as both scientific and ethnographic (with racist implications) and self-fashioning tools in the visual representation of slavery and the individual black body. In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, memorializing slavery in public space has preoccupied nations and communities as well as scholars in the 20th and 21st centuries. Contentious and difficult conversations have taken place on how to best visually represent slavery in the public sphere. Contemporary artists in the United States, such as Fred Wilson, Glen Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker, continue to engage the history and legacies of slavery and to wrestle with the meaning and representation of slavery for present-day audiences. This article focuses on the visual representation of slavery in the United States, Great Britain, and the British West Indies.

General Overviews

A number of works have been published that survey the image of the black in Western art, including visual representations of slavery. Bindman 2002 provides a solid summary of the philosophical underpinnings of 18th-century aesthetic theory as it relates to race. Bindman and Gates 2010–2014, an edited work of ten volumes treating the image of the black in Western art, is the go-to source for the subject. In 1960, Dominique de Menil conceived of the series. Fifty years later, Menil’s vision was expanded with involvement of Harvard University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, which revised the original five volumes and added five new books to the series. Volume 1 covers Egypt to the fall of the Roman Empire; Volume 2 in two parts continues from the early Christian era to the “Age of Discovery.” Volume 3, in three parts, covers the “Age of Discovery” to the age of abolition. Volume 4 considers the American Revolution to World War I; this volume is divided into two parts: slaves and liberators and black models and white myths. Volume 5 covers the 20th century with attention to the African diaspora and the rise of contemporary black artists. During the early 1990s, three important books carried forward the work of documenting the image of blacks in Western art: Boime 1990, McElroy 1990, and Pieterse 1992. Boime 1990 points to how racial attitudes about African Americans infiltrated 19th-century art in the United States. McElroy 1990 surveys more than sixty artists working in the United States from 1710 to 1940, investigating how art reflected changing social attitudes toward African Americans. Beginning with a historical survey of the representation of race in the medieval period, Pieterse 1992 concentrates on European and American attitudes to race through a close look at racist imagery and caricature in engravings and lithographs, advertisements, memorabilia, and comic strips. Kriz 2008 and Gikandi 2011 argue for the entwinement of 18th-century ideas on refinement and slavery. Both are concerned with how British identity and the culture of taste was created in relation to the West Indies, empire, and slavery. Eltis and Richardson 2010 provides a much-needed resource that reveals the dynamics of the transatlantic slave trade through maps. The volume of maps includes an excellent introduction to the complexity of the slave trade. The maps in the atlas are derived from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and Voyages Database website, sponsored by Emory University. Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past and Institute of Historical Research 2007 is another excellent online resource related to the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Britain, which covers history to art.

  • Bindman, David. Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the 18th Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

    Traces the origins of the 18th-century idea of race and its influence on aesthetic theory, including the ideas of John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Johann Wincklemann, Johann Caspar Lavater, and Pieter Camper. Includes twelve color and sixty-five black-and-white illustrations.

  • Bindman, David, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Image of the Black in Western Art. New ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2010–2014.

    This comprehensive series of ten volumes focuses on the representation of African diasporic peoples from Antiquity to the present. Each book includes essays from noted specialists in art history and extensive color illustrations.

  • Boime, Albert. The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

    An important early consideration of the representation of African Americans by white artists in the United States. Examines how stereotypes of African Americans in popular art and literature shaped generations of 19th-century American artists. Includes eight color and 101 black-and-white illustrations.

  • Eltis, David, and David Richardson. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

    This invaluable resource presents 189 color maps that detail the transatlantic slave trade. The themes of the maps range from nations transporting slaves from Africa to African coastal origins of slaves to the abolition and suppression of the transatlantic slave trade. See Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database website.

  • Gikandi, Simon. Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

    Demonstrates how the violence of enslavement shaped theories of taste (the world of aesthetics, manners, and politeness) and the practices of high culture during the 18th century. Focusing on Britain, the antebellum South, and the West Indies; explores portraits, period paintings, personal narratives, and diaries. Numerous black-and-white illustrations.

  • Kriz, Kay Dian. Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700–1840. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    Five chapters focus on scientific illustration, images of free mixed-race women, humor and print culture, scenes of everyday life, and landscape painting through the lens of slavery, sugar production, and the creation of a culture of refinement in the British West Indies. Includes forty color and eighty black-and-white illustrations.

  • McElroy, Guy C. Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710–1940. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1990.

    Exhibition catalogue features ninety-eight paintings, sculptures, and drawings from approximately sixty artists from the United States. Traces the way in which white American artists portrayed African Americans, both enslaved and free. Includes an informative introduction by McElroy. Excellent color reproductions of every object included in the exhibition. Published in association with The Corcoran Gallery of Art.

  • Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Originally published as Wit over Zwart: Beelden van Afrika en Zwarten in de Westerse Populaire Cultuur (Amsterdam: Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen, 1990), surveys the visual history of European and American stereotypes of Africans and peoples of African descent in a range of media from the 18th century to the late 20th century. Illustrations are in black and white.

  • Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past and Institute of Historical Research. 1807 Commemorated: The Abolition of the Slave Trade. York, UK: University of York, 2007.

    Created in 2007, this collaborative website explores the ways in which the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery was commemorated in Britain.

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