A pair of sculpted busts: they show the head and shoulders of a Black woman and man, each supported on a circular pedestal or short pillar. Both the busts and the pedestals are made of dark brownish colored bronze.
Charles Henri Joseph Cordier (1827–1905)
Vénus africaine and Saïd Abdullah, de la Tribu de Mayac, Royaume de Darfour
Bronze, 1852
Art and Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Vénus africaine and Saïd Abdullah, de la Tribu de Mayac, Royaume de Darfour

Transcript below

Anna Deavere Smith: Charles Cordier first exhibited his bust of Saïd Abdullah in 1848—the same year slavery was completely abolished in Cordier’s home country of France. He added Vénus Africaine, or African Venus, as a companion piece a few years later. While many probably viewed these busts as exotic curiosities at the time, Cordier had loftier goals. Tammi Lawson is Curator of Art and Artifacts at the Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Tammi Lawson: He's saying there's beauty in everybody. There's no race that has the standard on beauty.

Anna Deavere Smith: In the mid-19th century, the idea was revolutionary.

Tammi Lawson: It's just remarkable, especially for a Black person, to know that there was a French sculptor who actually looked at us as human beings, and portrayed us with dignity and beauty. 

Anna Deavere Smith: These busts were purchased in 1926 by Arturo Schomburg—for whom the Schomburg Center was named. Born in Puerto Rico, Schomburg had been an avid collector all his life.

Tammi Lawson: The story goes that back in Puerto Rico, in San Juan, there was an assignment that his teacher assigned his classmates; he was about ten or 12 years old. And it was to do a paper on your family, on your heritage. And then she said: “Little Arturo, don’t worry about it, we’ll find something else for you to do, because we know you don’t have any.” And from that time on, he just started collecting pamphlets, artwork, books—anything by and about people of African descent.

Anna Deavere Smith: It became the seed for the Schomburg Center today.

Tammi Lawson: Now we have over 11 million items and five special collections.

End of Transcript

Tammi Lawson is Curator of the Art and Artifacts Division at The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Laure de Margerie of French Sculpture Census.

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