I was walking the floor of SDCC when I did a double take. This was at artist Gary Gianni’s booth in the illustrator section of the floor…there was a painting of a white woman with dragons, with a black woman kneeling in front of her. Ugh, I thought, but then I read the signs and realized this was actually A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones officially licensed artwork!
Every year, George RR Martin officially releases a calendar by a famous fantasy artist depicting his world in ASOIAF. I know this because he’s been doing this for a while and he never hesitates to eagerly plug the calendar on his livejournal. Last December, Martin wrote “ Gary has finished nine of the twelve paintings as I write, and they’re all more spectacular than the last.”
There is some lovely artwork in the calendar—for example, one of the paintings hanging up on the booth was a sweet one of Ned holding Needle while Arya Stark sits on the bed, unsure of what will happen next. The official blurb for the calendar describes Gianni’s artwork as:
"capturing both [ASOIAF’s] epic scope and most intimate moments. Revered by many…Gianni’s classically composed, richly detailed art harkens back to the golden age of illustration.*”
Which would be awesome if harkening back to the golden age of illustration didn’t also including harkening back to some of the more racist bits of the golden age. (Seriously, check out the people at ComicCon waxing poetic about the Golden Age of anything and you’ll see very interesting demographic divides.) The Golden Age of Illustration took place between the Civil War and WWII. I think this blurb is supposed to make use excited about this Golden Age except this golden age is when stuff like golliwog and Black Sambo showed up so I don’t think PoC feel the same nostalgia.
I apologize for not taking better pictures of the painting—I assumed there would be one of it already somewhere online, but google preview happens to skip this page. To be honest, I was kind of agog that this painting even exists. Having woken the dragon multiple times over the past two months in critiquing how race is depicted in Game of Thrones, I found myself groaning and feeling rather tired as I waded through the fanboys ogling the calendar to get a shot of this painting.
How many people saw this painting but didn’t see the anti-blackness inherent in it? How many times does this franchise have to screw up on race before people own up to it? It doesn’t have to be intentional to hurt, it doesn’t have to be intentional or malicious in order to perpetuate stereotypes or open old wounds. Yes, it’s fantasy, but there are such things as racist fantasies, and each creator makes choices and decisions that have consequences.
So it’s just a painting of Daenerys Targaryen—a painting that manages to encapsulate all at once the problems this franchise currently has with race. From the white lady Jesus Mhysa scene to the erasure of Dorne as a PoC house, and now, to this—characters of color as servants and decoration, nameless and kneeling.
This could have been a painting of Dany laughing with Irri and Jhiqui, it could have been a painting of Dany sharing stories or diplomatic strategy with Missandei. It could have been a painting of Dany doing any of the many awesome things she has done throughout the series.
No. It’s a painting of a black woman, I think topless, kneeling in front of a reclined white woman and providing musical entertainment while the white woman plays with her pets.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s influenced by different styles and techniques and historical contexts and the one here is ugly and racist. The composition of this painting mirrors racist depictions of black servants and white women in 16th-18th century European art.
After the Middle Ages and Renaissance there was a shift in how black people were depicted in European art. While religious art in the Middle Ages and Renaissance would depict PoC royalty (eg. nativity scenes with the three Kings interacting with Madonna) and black heroes like St. Maurice, white artists began to depict PoC, namely black PoC, in servile roles, as “a diminutive creature either standing behind his Mistress or kneeling at her feet.” (Pieterse, 1998) (I’ll give you a guess as to the sociopolitical factors behind why this shift occurred…)
The black African attendant to a white European protagonist is an iconographic trope in art history. Seen in European artwork as well is the depiction of Africans as musicians as part of the stereotype that black Africans are “entertainers.” (Earle, 2005)
The “Moor as a servant” became a familiar figure in artwork depicting wealthy individuals, particularly white ladies. Their inclusion in paintings was a status symbol. The black servant was a “stylistic feature, a decorative element…a feature added to provide contrast in colour, pictorial variety and extra lustre, for the same reasons that a scene would be enriched with, for instance, domestic animals.” (Pieterse, 1998) For example, Dutch art in the 1690s would depict the white master with dogs and a black servant; the white subject would interact with the dogs while ignoring the black servant, communicating that the black servant was lowlier than the pets (Blakely, 1993)
When black servants were depicted next to a wealthy white woman in these paintings, the contrast in skin color was intentional. During this time white women’s fairness “inspired fervent odes of praise” and the inclusion of a Moor in the painting was intended to highlight how the white woman was “radiantly fair by comparison.” (Pieterse, 1998) (Pinder, 2002) (Cue a long history of using PoC as props to uphold white beauty standards.)
This picture of Dany with the black musician is particularly reminiscent of 1830 orientalist paintings—“a recurrent fantasy is a harem like situation in which languid, European, but orientally-adorned women are served by a black page.” (Pieterse, 1998) ”One of the black servant’s central functions in the visual arts of the 18th and 19th centuries was the sexualize the society in which he or she is found.” (Sander Gilman, BBC.) In many 18th century paintings the black woman would be depicted more sexually than the white woman (here she is topless but Dany is, thankfully clothed) to help convey the hidden sexuality of the white woman (Pinder, 2002)
Anyhow, this isn’t anything new, it’s just a tribute to the same old oppressive imagery that has been used to orientalize PoC in the service of the male gaze for several hundred years now.
And I suppose ASOIAF/GOT depicting PoC in a really terrible way is kind of old news now…but I guess I was still disappointed when I saw it.
Let me summarize this. “Hur hur a fictional universe has naked black people for shame.”
That. That’s basically all this person is saying I’m all for equal rights and social justice, but in works of fiction like this it’s normally a REALLY STUPID IDEA to apply our social conventions to them.That’s like someone getting pissed off at a history book for saying ‘Nigger used to be a far more accepted term when blacks were enslaved, but now it is considered to be a highly profane and inappropriate slur.’