Zoë Charlton, detail Paladins and Tourists 2011, graphite + gouache on paper
Zoë Charlton, best known for depicting sexualized bodies of black women, presents a new series of nude white male figures in her second solo exhibition with the Gallery, “Paladins and Tourists.” The themes of these large-scale drawings were inspired by the artist’s interactions with young white male art models. Charlton observed, “It was interesting that some of the men made efforts to define themselves in relation to me as a black female artist. They seemed eager to align themselves with me by telling me about certain interests, like Reggae music, or about causes they support, like Water for Africa.” Charlton’s experiences led her to conceive of her subjects as modern day paladins, or knights - who, instead of going into battle, volunteer and donate money - and as tourists - who sample unfamiliar, exotic cultures.
Charlton adorned her bare, white male models with tokens of their social beliefs, or souvenirs of their cultural adventures. Rather than toting weapons and saddlebags, the “paladins” carry water bottles, and shoulder bags. The “tourists” wear passport pouches and African emblems. To symbolically enhance their male power, the artist posed the models in provocative stances and, in her depictions, increased the size of their sex organs. The theme of dominance interacts with that of exotic souvenir collecting to evoke historical traditions, including European colonization of foreign lands and the collecting culture of the Grand Tour. As these precedents reverberate in the predominance of Western paradigms in today’s culture industry, Charlton’s drawings suggest a cultural critique.
Charlton delves further into a personal examination of colonialism and exotic objectification in “Untitled (Sarah Baartman)” a new video animation about Sarah Baartman (a South African slave who, in the early 19th century, was exhibited for public entertainment in England and France as a specimen of curiosity known as the “Hottentot Venus”). In the video, Charlton reverses the focus from Baartman’s body to her consumer audience, re-imagining the way Baartman felt her difference as crowds of European spectators openly gawked at her on-stage.