From exploitation to expression: Examining artistic agency in visualising blackness

12 December 2023 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Supplied. Read time 9 min.
Tayler Ava Friar
Tayler Ava Friar

When Tayler Ava Friar, an American-born woman, moved to South Africa, she was captivated by Johannesburg’s art scene and the skill and artistic talent of South African women artists. 

Their work and knack for their craft sparked something magical in her, ignited her passion for art and, in doing so, led to many unanswered questions – especially around the portrayal of black African women in art during colonial and pre-colonial times. These questions led her to pursue a PhD in art history at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2018. Following her graduation this week, Tayler is believed to be the first African-American to graduate with her PhD in art history from UCT.  

“Within the colonial archive lies a history of violence in which black bodies, particularly those of black women, have been subjected to reductionist and hypersexualised portrayals. This problem is rooted in colonialism, racialised misogyny, and the commodification of black bodies for the entertainment and consumption of dominant cultures,” she said. 

The nuanced gaze 

Following this find, Tayler used her doctorate thesis, “A nuanced gaze: An analysis of the black female body archetype through the work of contemporary African women artists”, to propose a novel conceptual framework – the nuanced gaze, to examine artistic representations of the black female body in art. The framework, she said, calls for a multifaceted approach to art – one that recognises the complexity and diversity regarding the portrayal of the black female body. 


“It also calls for an exploration of artistic expression that transcends reductionist and objectifying perspectives.”

“The nuanced gaze requires a certain kind of ethical work of care and puts you in a relationship with blackness, looking alongside art rather than at it. It also calls for an exploration of artistic expression that transcends reductionist and objectifying perspectives, but instead aim to present alternative narratives that are empowering and self-defined,” Tayler said.  

Acknowledging legacies of exploitation 

It’s a heavy research topic, but her motivation for selecting it is clear. For Tayler, it was essential to openly acknowledge the historical legacies of exploitation and misrepresentation of black African women in art, while emphasising hypersexualisation, the grotesque and fetish, and the power of art to challenge and subvert established norms. 

“This research sets the stage for further exploration and analysis of the artistic contributions by African women artists within the framework of the nuanced gaze. By shedding light on their works and perspectives, it aims to challenge the prevailing narratives that have perpetuated harmful stereotypes,” she said. 

Shifting the narrative 

Her research also highlights the urgent need to shift the narrative surrounding blackness and underscores the importance of reimagining visual engagement in a more empowering and inclusive manner. But what impact is she hoping this work will have, especially on African artists? She said currently Westernised frameworks used to judge artwork are inappropriate, especially when considering the body of black women from Africa, and therefore needs to be adapted. In addition to that, she said she has proposed reconceptualising black women using an approach that centres agency and subjectivity in its representation. 

“By delving into the works of African women artists, this conceptual framework underscores the agency and authorship of these artists in reclaiming and redefining the visual representation of the black female body.” 

A loaded journey 

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since she first arrived at UCT to start her PhD. There have been many memorable moments along the way, some of which stemmed from initiatives rooted in her research and vision to affirm black voices in the arts. 

As her work slowly progressed, she said she felt “compelled” to establish an initiative that, like her research, would spotlight marginalised narratives. And she did. In 2018, while still very new to the campus community, Tayler founded ART|unknown – a multidisciplinary creative group on a mission to showcase unconventional art in unconventional spaces. Its formation led to several “incredible opportunities”, including multiple invitations from companies like Google and the World Bank. She’s also become a TEDx speaker, delivering a TEDx keynote titled: “How to affirm black voices wherever you are”.

“None of these remarkable moments would have materialised without the timely alignment of my scholarly venture at UCT and my external passion project. My academic community gave me wings to bring my culture and convictions to global stages while empowering black artists everywhere. For that critical confluence, I will forever be grateful,” she said. 

Peaks and valleys 

It’s a fact, Tayler noted, that completing a PhD “will have peaks and valleys”. But throw a global pandemic and juggling a full-time job into the mix and you have an impossible situation. Scholars like her were in a whirlwind with no choice but to sink or swim. During this unprecedented time, Tayler said her motivation and focus suffered a major blow. 


“Conducting research in isolation and losing those daily connections were draining.”

“Conducting research in isolation and losing those daily connections were draining. My productivity slowed to a crawl some days. I had to adapt my goals and timelines, which elongated reaching critical milestones. Most difficult was maintaining momentum without access to labs, materials or in-person collaboration. Let me not even mention juggling the PhD with full-time employment – that was another monster entirely. Let’s just say sleep was scarce those years and my time management skills were put to the test daily,” Tayler said.

“Carving out time for my research amidst other obligations meant early mornings, late nights and forgiving myself when I didn’t meet pre-pandemic levels of productivity.”

A voice of reason 

When she felt her research stalled and the mountain of work only seemed to grow taller by the minute, Tayler eyed the exit signs and considered making a break for it multiple times. But after a personal pep talk that involved reminding herself why she took on “this crazy challenge”, she would always backtrack. 

She admitted that she could do none of it without the support of her supervisor, Associate Professor Nomusa Makhubu, her biggest champion and her voice of reason in the midst of much chaos.

“Her brilliance is matched only by her empathy – a potent combination for a mentor. She intrinsically understood my research intentions even when I struggled to articulate them. During the inevitable ebbs, when self-doubt crept in or progress stalled, she was there with patience and reassurance to re-centre my capability and my vision,” she said.  

Pillar of strength 

But the love of family and friends trumps everything. Tayler said her sister, Morgan, has been her pillar of strength – encouraging and motivating her with her unique humour during some of the most gruelling moments on her PhD journey. She said Morgan’s confidence in her abilities carried her through some tough times. 

“No matter the stresses, or worries I expressed about this arduous journey, she had a witty quip ready to make me smile and shake off the nerves. Morgan also conversely spoke of my PhD endeavours as if its successful completion was already a given. Her complete confidence in my abilities made me feel I could take on any challenge. When the academic environment wore me down, her blend of laughter and relentless belief built me back up,” she said.

Be patient 

Tayler acknowledged that getting through a postgraduate degree can be “incredibly challenging” and sometimes circumstances crop up that make it feel almost impossible to continue. She encouraged students to recognise that what they’re feeling is valid and to seek support from UCT’s Student Wellness Service, mentors in the faculty and family and friends. 


“Know that one difficult stretch does not define your worth or ability to ultimately obtain your degree.”

She urged them to maintain perspective and to take a step back when things get rough, even if this means temporarily reducing the course load or research goals, exploring alternative options or asking for more time. 

“Know that one difficult stretch does not define your worth or ability to ultimately obtain your degree. Tap into those who care about you and believe in your potential. Regain balance where you can find it and be patient and compassionate with yourself – meeting each day as it comes while keeping a hopeful eye on the future,” she said.

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