In Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I Jeannette Ehlers examines the current traces of our colonialist past. It is based on a historical photograph from 1900 in the Royal Danish Library’s collection, which shows Sarah, a maid from St. Croix, in a ball gown. The photo was taken by Alfred Paludan-Müller, a Danish pharmacist who lived on St. Croix in 1879–1904.

Sarah from St. Croix

The photo of a Black woman in white clothes, positioned to face the camera in a contemporary living room, is projected on the wall. The slightly blurred image of the seated woman gradually changes, and the image of another Black woman emerges. In this manner, the film continuously alternates, almost imperceptibly, between the women. The viewer is thus met by varying but similar gazes, while the poet Lesley-Ann Brown recites the lines ‘You are a possible me in the past, I am a possible you in the present … with a sea of time between us.’

Ehlers’s video Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I references the original photograph of Sarah from St. Croix, which hangs on the wall next to the TV screen. Sarah worked as a maid to Paludan-Müller. In the portrait she is shown on the family’s veranda, wearing a crisply starched white dress. The photograph is clearly staged, and Sarah’s body posture and facial expression reflect her discomfort with the situation. She is involuntarily frozen in place as part of a historical narrative, her visceral experience captured by the photographic lens.

A common bond

Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I addresses the theme of the colonial legacy and also acts as a commentary on portrait photography as genre. While the historical photograph involves an exercise of power between the photographer and the portrayed person, Ehlers’s video reflects a very different sense of mutual trust. A common bond is established between the women, with clear links to Sarah as a real person from the past. The installation challenges the historical photograph and adds a decolonial perspective to the Library’s collection by handing control of the narrative to the portrayed women.

The installation was first show in the group exhibition Writings of Bodies – We Know it From the Inside at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen in 2019 and will be included in the permanent photo exhibition at Den Nationale Fotosamling, which is scheduled to open in spring 2021 at The Black Diamond, the building that houses the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen.

About Jeannette Ehlers

Jeannette Ehlers (b. 1973) studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1999–2006. Since 2009 she has addressed the legacy of Denmark’s colonial past in her art, and together with the Danish-Greenlandic visual artist Pia Arke she has helped highlight colonial history in the Danish art scene in striking works of art. In her artistic practice Ehlers seeks to create an archive of alternative notions and narratives about historical victims of oppression and to add nuance to the broader debate about colonialism and, not least, its traces in today’s society. Her works include I Am Queen Mary (2019) and Black Magic in the White House (2009), which are also included in the collection of Den Nationale Fotosamling.