Elaborately robed in patterned textiles and wearing a turban encrusted with tiny jewels, an ebony figurine dangles a hanging lamp from his outstretched arm. Another figure is harder at work: Bare-chested and gleaming, he balances a tabletop on his back, his ample biceps securing it in place. These are Blackamoors—a trope in Italian decorative art especially common in pieces of furniture, but also appearing in paintings, jewelry, and textiles. The motif emerged as an artistic response to the European encounter with the Moors—dark-skinned Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East who came to occupy various parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Commonly fixed in positions of servitude—as footmen or waiters, for example—the figures personify fantasies of racial conquest.  

photo: "Blackamoor" figurine -- a man struggling under the weight of an urn he carries on his head

Gaudy by nature, and uncomfortably dated—a bit like the American lawn jockey, or Aunt Jemima doll—the Blackamoors aren’t exactly highlights in the expansive art collection of La Pietra, a Florentine villa bequeathed to NYU by Sir Harold Acton in 1994. But while historians haven’t always championed them, Blackamoors are still a thriving industry, with the United States as their no. 1 importer. (In fact, the figurines are especially popular in Texas and Connecticut—search “Blackamoor” online and you’ll find countless listings on eBay, Etsy, and elsewhere.) Unlike their American counterparts, which focus mostly on romanticizing scenes from the era of slavery, these European ornaments often depict black bodies as exotic noblemen. And not everyone considers them passé: As recently as September 2012, the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana invited outrage when it included a caricatured black woman figurine on an earring as part of its spring/summer collection.

So how does a forward-thinking, global university like NYU respond to the discovery that the 34 Blackamoors now in its possession form the largest of any known public or private collection? How do we make sense of the industry’s endurance—and America’s role in it? “We thought that instead of simply putting them in storage, we can train students in contextualization and curation,” says Awam Amkpa, curator and NYU professor of Africana studies, of La Pietra’s collection. “We can use it to create a wider understanding of how we have seen the black body through the ages.”

Amkpa—also a playwright, filmmaker, and professor of drama—had already established a relationship with NYU’s study-away site in Florence by curating several exhibitions centered on African migration and labor, so when it came to confronting the challenge of the Blackamoors, he was an obvious choice for consultant. Working with NYU Florence Executive Director Ellyn Toscano, he curated ReSignifications, an exhibition of contemporary artworks displayed “in conversation” with the Blackamoors—challenging and interrogating their form and subject matter, as well as that of Classical and Renaissance art more generally.  

photo: "Blackamoor" figuring holding a camera, draped with rope and with fire extinguishers sitting next to it

The exhibition and accompanying symposium, “Black Portraiture[s ]II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging Histories,” would go beyond Europe and its history. “This is not only about the past,” says Amkpa. “It’s an emergency response for cultural producers and commentators, a response to bodies in historical crisis.” Conceived as a dialogue among students, local and international artists, activists, scholars, and consumers, ReSignifications challenges contemporary racial dynamics across the globe, confronting continued discrimination in a post-Ferguson America and tackling themes of immigration and xenophobia in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The weekend-long symposium—which included a keynote address by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, as well as lectures on topics like jazz and Afrofuturism—facilitated further discussion of how codes of race representation have been inherited, and how they affect our modern associations with the black body.

“We wanted the exhibition to be highly inclusive,” says Amkpa. “We sought artists from Brazil, Africa, Barbados, Europe, and elsewhere.” Some of the most provocative African, African-American, and diaspora artists were commissioned, including MacArthur fellow Carrie Mae Weems, Fred Wilson, and Mickalene Thomas from the United States, Mary Sibande and Zanele Muholi from South Africa, and Kiluanji Kia Henda from Angola. Ahead of the exhibition, which opened in May, an artists residency was established to give emerging artists an opportunity to develop work for the exhibition. The final showcase is dispersed across three venues in Florence—La Pietra, the Museo Bardini, and the Galleria Biagiotti for contemporary art.

Alongside positive reviews in The Guardian and The International Review of African American Art, ReSignifications has garnered local attention too. Though the show is currently set to run through August 29, Amkpa was approached by the mayor of Florence, who requested that the exhibition extend to the first week of November to coincide with an international mayoral conference organized by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Given Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s newfound commitment to immigrant rights—he’s stated his support for automatic citizenship for immigrants’ children born in Italy—the mayor recognized NYU’s contribution as an opportunity to showcase Florence as a center of progressive dialogue.

NYU Stories sat down with Amkpa to discuss the importance of this exhibition—and the conversations it has generated—in Italy and beyond.  

—Anneke Rautenbach

photo: kneeling "blackamoor" figuring with arm outstretched, as if to carry something overhead

How has Florence’s local art community responded to ReSignifications?
Florence being well known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, a lot of emerging local artists have felt that the cultural landscape is overwhelmed by it, that there isn’t much space for interrogation. ReSignifications allowed them to do that, and since its opening in May we’ve seen more young artists producing art in this vein. There is a real crisis of xenophobia towards African immigrants in Italy, and many artists expressed a desire to explore themes of migration and immigration. We also reached out to immigrant communities within the art world. For example, one of the local collectives that participated is called Influx, and consists of three Italians and two Africans. They produced a work that combined images of La Pietra with poetic musical renditions.

I strongly believe that NYU, with its satellite campuses and study abroad sites, has a special responsibility to incorporate the communities it encounters in producing new knowledge. So we didn’t just bring in outsiders, but made an effort to engage local artists who could look at the classical through the eyes of the contemporary.

Were there any reactions—local or international—that surprised you?
Everyone was so open to working with us. There is a sizeable Blackamoor industry in Florence and in Venice, and there are many factories that make them to order. One such factory assisted us with research on the industry, and even loaned us two of their works. There are also families in the city who keep Blackamoor collections as heirlooms. One of these is the Pucci family, and they were also very open to working with us, inviting us to see the collection at their home. I think we saw these reactions because it was clear that apart from criticizing Blackamoors, we were interested in historicizing them.

Dolce and Gabbana also approached me about participating, which I didn’t expect! I said no, of course—we’re not that broke.  

photo: two "Blackamoor" busts in turbans

How do you put Blackamoors in context historically while also challenging the industry?
It’s important to understand that Blackamoors emerged as a response to the Moorish occupation of Europe. They were Arabic, hence the turbans and tunics you see in many of them. They were a curiosity—there were not many Africans in Italy at the time. So that’s where the tradition came from. Today there is a much larger African population in Italy, one that is often marginalized. So to continue to practice the craft as it existed back then—that’s to say that Africans are more acceptable as pieces of art than as fellow citizens. That’s the attitude we want to challenge.

In the world of antiques and collectibles, are Blackamoors considered mainstream, or are they more of a fetish?
It depends on who is making them and who is buying them. The making of Blackamoors has been a respected craft in Italy for centuries, something that’s been passed down from one generation to the next. But for the last six years there’s been a definite upsurge in interest, and then you see something like the Dolce & Gabbana earrings, which are obviously playing on Blackamoors as a fetish. That’s why I didn’t want to get involved with them—I was nervous about fanning that flame and that interest.  

photo: black man in black face and turban reclining nude on a vintage sofa on the beach

Were there any particularly controversial artworks included in the exhibition?

There are definitely some that have caused more of a stir than others. One that comes to mind is by the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, who recreated the trope of the “reclining nude” by using a black male body—so he changed the kind of nudity we take for granted to a different kind of nudity. Another was Carrie Mae Weems’s “Not Manet’s Type,” a series of photographs that considers the tradition of the female model under the male gaze. These artworks are particularly effective as our aim is to challenge not only the subject matter of classical Western art, but its very conventions, and how these conventions affect the rest of the world. Where better to do this than Florence? Ultimately we are asking how we can build a more broadly inclusive world.