“It is critical to reckon with the power imbalance enacted when a white male artist transposes the body of a black woman into an emblem of enslavement.”
Why Born Enslaved! was first conceived in 1868 by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, one of the greatest French sculptors of the nineteenth century. The bust portrays a woman straining against a rope pulled taut around her arms, back, and breast. Her shoulders project forward and the right tendon of her neck protrudes as she twists her body in one direction and turns her head sharply in the other.
The figure’s defiant, uplifted gaze extends her spiraling movement and conveys her perseverance through pain as the work’s rhetorical title, inscribed on the sculpture’s base, proclaims, “Pourquoi Naitre Esclave!”