114th Annual Conference - Pasadena, California
Friday, November 11 - Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ekphrastic Writing: Resuscitating the Black Female Figure from Historical Erasure

Nicole Corrigan, Independent Scholar

The topic of this discussion will explore ekphrastic writing as an approach to recall, remember, re-member, and repair history. During the duration of this discussion, I will examine ekphrastic works of literature that have been constructed as a means of resuscitating the black female figure from historical erasure.


The purpose of this proposal is to initiate a critical conversation that revolves around ekphrasis as an approach to resurrecting the black female figure from historical erasure. It is a reparative approach that not only prohibits erasure but resuscitates the stories that have been historically ignored. In this way, the ekphrastic approach provides literary space, as well as cinematic representation, for a type of black female subjectivity that otherwise may not have been acknowledged. Motivated by Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus, Misan Sagay and Amma Asante’s Belle, as well as Bellocq’s Ophelia by Natasha Tretheway, I offer ekphrasis as an approach that prohibits and resuscitates erasure.

            Dedicated to the resurrection of what would be the erasure of the black, or African American, female figure from Western history, Lewis’ work is a collection of poetry that includes “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present” (35). In this way, Lewis’ work reads like an ekphrastic timeline that recalls and re-members the history of black women. Equally important is the discovery Lewis made while tending to her work. The writer quickly realized that many museums and libraries had erased historical-markers “such as slave, colored, and negro” from their archives (35). Lewis’ discovery about erasure not only underscores the critical significance of her work but also shows us how ekphrasis, as a form of resuscitation, gives life to stories that have been historically erased and/or ignored.

            Sagay and Asante acknowledge and amend this erasure by digging up the history behind a woman in a portrait who went nameless for centuries. Their research constructed a film titled Belle. Inspired by a painting that seemed to contribute to the erasure of black women, Sagay and Asante brought black female subjectivity to the forefront of historical fiction and cinematic representation. Tretheway’s work also performs this resuscitation approach by way of ekphrasis. The writer’s ekphrastic collection is comprised of poems inspired by an untitled photograph taken by E.J. Bellocq in 1912. Among a collection of untitled Bellocq photographs, spectators will find the nameless biracial woman of 1912 who is dressed in Bellocq’s white patriarchal gaze. However, Tretheway’s work shifts the gaze, and in doing so, she pieces together a new story, a new narrative. It is a narrative that is not necessarily crafted by the woman in the photograph, who Tretheway has named Ophelia, but is definitely a product of black female spectatorship.In this way, Tretheway’s ekphrastic approach provides a narrative of black female subjectivity that could not have otherwise been rendered by Bellocq’s patriarchal gaze.

It is this ekphrastic approach that will no longer allow us to be apathetic or complicit in the normative ways in which the black female figure is historically erased. The ekphrastic process resurrects the black female figure from such erasure. And this discussion examines ekphrastic writing as a means to prevent the erasure and explore the history of black female subjectivity.