‘Q is for Queen Lozikeyi’: Exhibiting the African woman’s body in the 21st Century – repetitions, oh repetitions!

5 September 2013
For months now, I have been walking, almost daily, passed a photographic image of a half-naked Queen Lozikeyi – the senior queen and one of the last queens of King Lobhengula of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe. King Lobhengula was killed in a war against British rule in 1893. The Queen’s photograph, taken c1910, is displayed on hoardings hiding the construction of a new wing of the Bodleian Library on Broad Street in Oxford. The image is one among many; alphabetized to demonstrate to the public the extent of the library’s archives – ‘Q is for Queen Lozikeyi’. Three notable western women are included: ‘A is for Jane Austen’; ‘S is for Mary Shelley’; and X is for the scientist Dorothy Hodgkin, highlighting her Nobel Prize for work on X-Ray crystallography – the first two are paintings and the last a photograph.

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Every journey I make pass the photograph of the Queen has been punctuated with brief moments of internal debate, comprising mostly of destabilizing thoughts, suffused with anger as the central emotion, and with questions formulating and reformulating. I would ask myself: why is this image here? Why is it appropriate to have an image of a half-naked black woman with post-maternity breasts on the hoarding? Were they no other representatives for the letter Q? No one else on the hoarding is naked. Why is it thought acceptable to display African nudity? If the Queen was alive today, how would she feel – shame! Most likely, she would prefer an image fully clothed to reflect the values of her adopted Christian religion and the legacy of Victorian morality she inherited from missionaries.

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Those who have chosen to display her on the hoarding might say the photograph was taken in a different era and is now an historical artefact in the library of Rhodes House. Even so, it would not have been appropriate in nineteenth and early twentieth century England to display a half-naked white female body so publicly. Yet African bodies were displayed in London, live ones included – the most famous being Saratje (Sara) Baartman – exhibited because of her prominent posterior, and her gentalia pickled for research after her death. Thankfully, Mandela’s South Africa was able to prise her body parts from the French for a human burial.

How could the Queen have known that her image would be captured and displayed for public consumption in a distant land over a century later on a very public thoroughfare? At a time when feminists in that same land are campaigning against the location of ‘girly’ magazines on the lower shelves in shops to avoid easy accessibility by children; thus challenging the increased objectification of women’s bodies by capital. Yet on Broad Street, young children are at eye level with the Queen.

After each passing, I promise myself to write down my feelings – to shout out about the injustice – to start a conversation in Oxford. Other pursuits took priority and nothing happened until I started reading for a paper I am writing on sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and came across an article by the historian Nancy Hunt ; the contents of which resonated with my thoughts on the Queen. Hunt was concerned with the failure of those agencies campaigning against sexual violence in today’s Congo to make links with the past; notably with the atrocities carried out on the rubber concessions on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium. Hunt asks for a more sensory reading of archival documents, to unpack the hidden acoustics of the sexual violence against women who were photographed, but whose internal injuries were never articulated by campaigners against Leopold’s heart of darkness. Hunt encourages us to reflect, read, and be attentive to repetitions – those 1910 “shock-photos” of Congolese with their hands chopped off are not too dissimilar from contemporary photos of abused African women – taken often without consent to generate emotions and resources in a distant land. How much progress have we made in transcending imperial visions? For Hunt, ‘we should not repeat and reproduce the tenacity of the visual and the sense of shock it produces’ [her emphasis] (p.242).

Some observers may see the inclusion of the Queen among such an illustrious crowd as a final recognition by empire of one of their indomitable foes. In Zimbabwe, the Queen is celebrated for her devotion to her people, her courageous battle against the British – against physical and mental slavery, so why represent her in a fashion that objectifies her in European thought. Are there other photos of the Queen I ask myself? Just typing her name into Google Images, I found another of her, fully clothed, standing proud – a giant of a woman. I want to hypothesise that displaying the half-naked body of the Queen reflects the unconscious positioning in the western world of black women’s bodies as spectacular objects historically and contemporaneously; perceived in a racialized way as being lesser species of humanity – in effect, the antithesis of beauty and womanhood – exotic and asexual in the case of the Queen. While I was taking photographs of the hoarding, two young white men, sitting on a bench immediately opposite, started laughing. The Queen would not have been amused and neither am I.

Update: ‘The Queen is Clothed!’
25 February 2014

I sent my short piece to several people in the Bodleian. After a meeting that the University’s Equality Adviser for Race, Religion and Belief and I had with the Keeper of the Special Collection and a librarian from the Rhodes House Collection, I am pleased to announce that the Queen is now clothed. We were shown a collection of photos taken of the Queen c1910. She was fully clothed in all but the one image that was on the hoardings. See her standing tall below.

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