Yesterday my husband and I toured Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. We're in the last days of our winter break, but our children have gone back to daycare, so we had the rare opportunity to spend time together, alone, in daylight hours. Because we have a membership to the museum, we get access to special exhibits. Currently, the museum houses a special exhibit--a gallery of portraits--on the British Royals from the Tudors to the Windsors. Neither of us felt drawn to the exhibit; we're not Anglophiles that way, and aside from the one summer I read three entire 800-page history books on the Tudors because of a brief flare-up of Anne Boleyn obsession, we don't know much or care. I don't ooh and aah over royal weddings or royal babies or royal anything. Perhaps I'm a little too aware of my Irish Catholic ancestry to idolize Britain. But, we had free entry, so we thought, why not?
Like most curated exhibits at the MFAH, the gallery enticed us into caring: the strange femininity of men renowned for their brutality toward enemies and subjects, the largess of the paintings, the intricate ancestral webs. Around us, museum visitors sported tour guide headphones, and others huddled up their children saying, look, look while the children giggled.
Then, I turned a corner and stood face-to-face with George II's mistresses, one of which was Louise de Karoualle. She was an agent of the French ambassador during her love affair with the British king and widely disliked by British people--apparently--but a favorite of his nonetheless. Her portrait renders her much more beautiful than the actual royals of her time, and her beauty and benevolence, I was informed by the adjoining placard, were meant to be heightened by the artist when he placed an African child under her arm. The dark-skinned girl blends into the background, while de Karoualle's pale white face glows from the center of the frame like a sun. Adoring, the child tilts her chin up toward the sunlight, modeling the appropriate response from viewers to such splendor.
I side-eyed my husband.
"Yeah," he said. "Gross."
"But, a portrait of me with W. could look like that," I said and grimaced.
"I think you'd at least be smiling," he said.
We passed through the rest of the gallery in silence, from Victoria to Elizabeth II to Diana to Meghan Markle.
I was thinking of all the children, black, brown and white, moving past de Karoualle's portrait. I was thinking too of postcolonial theorist, Edward Said, who wrote, "The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe." On the stage of that portrait, the African girl is a prop, there merely to adorn and mimic her subject. Of course, this portrayal of white women's lives as center stage to a backdrop of brown supporting actors is not new, and not infrequent. Consider the following Anthropologie ad:
But what I was really thinking about was my own potential complicity as an artist. My black child is not a prop in the performance of my life--I certainly didn't "aquire" him to highlight my white goodness; we didn't go looking for any particular color of child in our adoption process as though children are collectibles--but when I use him in my writing about race, I risk making him a prop.
Inevitably, this website will constitute one "portrait of a white woman," a representation, carefully curated, and one meant for viewing. So I must create more thoughtfully than Sir Peter Lily when he placed that African child at the foot of Louise de Karoulle's lap. Of course, I have the advantage of loving my child and knowing his divine specifics--throaty laugh, bow-legged gait, maple syrup eyes--but the challenge to me remains: paint the messy truth.