Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
Letters from Africa

Portrait d'une négresse by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, from 1800.


Not Queen Bilikisu Sungbo but an unknown woman. Benoist (1768 - 1826) was one of a small group of women painters in late 18th century France. She studied under Jacques-Louis David and received commissions from Napoleon. This was her most famous work.

Today some art critics use the painting and the painter to criticize a long-gone system of patriarchal and racial oppression, but they end up duplicating the exact same thing. At the time this painting was very well received, even if it irritated several influential (and racist) art critics, and I favor the more optimistic view that it's subversive and affirmative because of the woman's quiet dignity. Some see it as indicative of the short window in France between 1794, when slavery was abolished in the colonies, and 1802 when it was reinstated.

There was a real Bilikisu Sungbo, of course, and she is still identified by some in Nigeria with the Queen of Sheba. It drives other Nigerians crazy: "It irritates me that it is being linked to the Queen of the Queen of Sheba is the only African Queen that can exist...when it is obviously a completely different kingdom altogether...but I guess we always must validate our ancestors accomplishments by connecting everything to the Bible ....Like we can't do anything outside of it."

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