What Dreams May Come? Dealing with History and Decolonising Imagery for Children
“When I depart, I will leave a path for you, a path of visions flames and
rainbows, where only the firewalkers can follow” – Kevin Sipp
Little Black Sambo is still on sale for children to read in Denmark. Last year a Swedish high street retailer advertised a Black child wearing a sweater with the slogan “coolest Monkey in the Jungle”. Some children in the Netherlands dress up for Christmas in blackface. Disney still needs an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander princess. When will limiting practices of stereotyping and racialized bias be undone? This talk will outline some of the colonial toxins that are still present in imagery produced for children. It uses this context to think through some of the challenges of de-linking from this inheritance, and then explores expansive and magical images by international illustrators and animators who are realising alternative possibilities.
The inquiry engaged in this talk emerges out of years of art historical research on visual cultures of slavery and colonialism, and my attempts to teach and curate exhibitions with this difficult material. Slavery’s visual archive produces complex and painful views of Black children in Europe, where they appear, for example, as exotic “accessories” to wealthy families in family portraits as a metaphor for imperial devotion. Their bodies are also used as a tool for enacting fantasies of domination: ebony-skinned children in portraits with aristocratic women, for example, are included to accent both the fairness of white skin and the subject’s virtue. Sometimes Black children appear as “playthings” amongst other captive animals such as dogs, monkeys, and parrots. Encompassing this matrix of signs was the paternalistic view of Africa itself as a child, in need of civilising and control.
Negative stereotypes developed during slavery and colonialism, found their way into everyday material culture, instituting aesthetic values and ideologies that have continued to reside comfortably in the home. Until recently, a caricature of a Black child could be found on “Sambó Lakkris” boxes in Iceland. In the United States Black babies were characterised in Jim Crow imagery as bait for capturing crocodiles, and represented experiencing this violence through objects such as letter openers. The harmful notion that Black children do not feel pain in the same way as other children comes out of this longstanding history of racialisation and commodification of Black bodies.
Whilst I consider it harmful to restate the violence of the cultural archive, even in this abstract text, I provide samples from the historical record as a call for sensitivity and care. The aim of this talk is ultimately to brave a challenging conversation about the things that are unfinished; how the past appears or is re-enacted in the present. This is in order to make way for new visions of childhood and humanity to thrive.
Temi Odumosu is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Malmö University. She is author of Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes, White Humour (2017), which recently won the Historians of British Art book award for scholarship between 1600-1800. Her international research and curatorial practice are concerned with colonial archives/archiving, slavery and visuality, Afro-Diaspora art, performance of memory, ethics of care-in-representation, and more broadly exploring how art mediates social transformation and healing. Recent curative interventions in Scandinavia include What Lies Unspoken: Sounding the Colonial Archive (National Gallery & Royal Library of Denmark, 2017–2018), Milk & Honey (Botkyrka Konsthall, Sweden, 2017), and Possession: Art, Power and Black Womanhood (New Shelter Plan, Denmark, 2014).