Moors on Doors: The Minute Sculpted Heads of the Moors of Venice


“There thou hangest” or Moor on the Door I, Venice, 2015

“Alas, Falada, hanging there!” Then the head answered,  “Alas, young queen, how ill you fare!
 If this your tender mother knew,
 Her heart would surely break in two.”

– excerpt from The Goose Girl, The Brothers Grimm

Fumbling my way through the streets of Venice in the first few hours after my arrival, I slung my camera around to capture whatever caught my eye – easily everything, as the novelty of the entirely old city transformed it into a visual feast for me. The narrow pathways between the tall 16th century buildings cut the sunlight and the landscape into sharply contrasting geometric strips. Mystery and drama kissed paint and wrought iron, cobblestones, graffiti and decaying facades alike. I could feel the birth of chiaroscuro. I crossed a bridge and another, and yet another, and thick, curling wrought iron, entangled in a spider’s web caught my eye. Garbage puddled in the lower rusting details. I tripped on by and began to make images of the door next to it. I leaned in to take a closer look at the oddly shaped doorknob only to pull back in shock as I recognized the small head of a distinctly African woman. The bust was adorned with hair separated into tiny kinks, an intricate headdress, and earrings. Her full lips and broad rounded nose filled out an expressive face that sat atop bare shoulders. A hint of generous décolletage enwrapped in ornately twisting fabric attached itself to the outer door of a residence. There she ended, this brass creature, head and shoulders that fit neatly into the palm of one’s hand. She was at once an amputated woman, the head of Europe’s dichotomously defined “other,” a fully functional doorknob, a historic object and a contemporary marvel.

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I was elated to make the discovery of this tiny reflection of myself. I found in her a skillful depiction of a Black woman that was an arrow pointing directly to the heart of a 5-century long tale – the encounters of Europe and people from other parts of the world. Fixed in her incomplete state, relegated to be handled daily, perhaps this minute bronze portrait was no honor. Yet it preserved a likeness, or someone’s fantasy of a likeness, of a presence that still taunts the Eurocentric notions of purity and exclusivity. This bust of an unknown African woman has outlived the hands of her maker. The blacksmith and the homeowner – whose intentions were likely uncomplimentary – live on only in her image.

After finding her, my extemporaneous wandering gained one new purpose – to expand this discovery. My walks became marked by a heightened attention to every doorway, in case I ran into her again, or in case there were more like her. I stumbled into many more of these ‘blackamoors,’ as weathered props in the corners of shop windows, covered in sparkling gems in exquisitely styled jewelry store displays, and as common as pennies in art museums. Yet I was most captivated and moved by the palm-sized portraits that jutted almost unnoticeably from the doors of everyday homes. They hung there like the magical horse, Falada, of a childhood fairytale, baring empathic witness while offering a comforting if powerless presence. I had to kneel to capture their downward-pointing gazes at eye level, to portray the uneasy and out-of-place humanity in their interrupted brass bodies. Yet I found it and made eye contact with those faces. I worked to uncover their individuality. The unique features and expressions in each micro-sculpture lead me to imagine real people who once left a home far away and came to walk these very streets.

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