Sunday, 26 January 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I’ve got two favours to ask you today, my dear readers: one is to, please, bear with me until the end of this first post (there are two this morning. Talk about getting two for the price of one!) before you comment; the other one is not to scroll down at any point until I tell you it’s OK to do so. Thanks.

Let’s imagine the following scenarios:

First scenario: a model sits upright on a chair, legs crossed. She is wearing a white blouse. She looks calm and she is not smiling.

Second scenario: a model sits upright on a chair, legs crossed. She is wearing a white blouse. She looks calm and she is not smiling. Incidentally, the “chair” is shaped like a white woman tied up.

Third scenario: a white woman who happens to be a gallery owner poses on a chair. She is wearing a white blouse. She looks calm and she is not smiling. Incidentally, the “chair” is shaped like a black woman tied up.

Which of these three scenarios shocked you most? Come on, be honest. I would bet my bottom dollar that it was the third one. Why? The answer to that question is exactly what I would like to explore with you today.

There was an uproar this week about the (questionable, you could say) decision by art gallery owner Dasha Zhukova to pose on a chair whilst having her photo taken for a Russian fashion website. The chair was shaped like a woman, naked, save for knee-high boots, elbow-length gloves and very small, tight pants. The woman was black.

Reader, you can scroll down now. But, please, come back up because I would like you to read on and let me know what you think of that image.

I confess I was shocked at first. Yet, the more I thought about the photo, the less convinced I was that the picture was racist or that the person taking it was racist, or even the model posing in it.

If we see art (art in all its forms, by the way, from photography to multimedia, from literature to knitting) as an edited, aesthetical interpretation of our unsynthesised world, then it follows that socio-politics should have minimum influence on the resulting artwork. Art, whether for art’s sake or as an act of provocation, is a two-way system: exposure and perception. Exposure by the artist, perception by the audience. That we also bring our own prejudices, morals, social values and political preferences to the mix should not detract from the fact that an artist, on creating a work of art and unveiling it, demands first and foremost a total shutdown on the part of the audience. Here, come and see what I have created, he or she will say, but first, turn off the “judgement” zone, then close the door behind you and enter my space.

However, we do live in a world where socio-politics play an important role and, sadly, art does not exist in a vacuum. My first reaction on seeing the photo below was shock, followed by disgust, followed by puzzlement (at my rushed conclusions), followed by a change of mind (I began to see the piece as sexist rather than a racist) and finally followed by both understanding and indifference. Understanding, because I could see the point of view of those who criticised the work. Indifferent because from an artistic point of view the chair made me feel nothing, represented nothing to me and will leave no lasting memories in me.

However, as I just mentioned I can see why some people were outraged. The answer lies in numbers: thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. That’s how many Africans were enslaved and taken to the Americas. The answer lies as well in the representation of the descendants of said Africans for centuries; usually as brainless sexual beasts or powerful sportspeople, but very rarely, if ever, as intellectually challenging beings. We have been clichés on two legs for as long as I can remember. That, believe you me, rankles a wee bit, my brethren and sisters.

And yet.

When the Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen” with the famous defaced image of her Royal Highness on the single’s cover, the artwork was seen as provocation. The intention was clear and the message direct. This was an instance of art being used to subvert an idea, the British monarchy in this case. I doubt the “chair” is in the same category. To me the black element in the photo is random rather than intentional. Bjarne Melgaard, the photographer, could have used a model of any other ethnicity and I would have still seen randomness (in fact, methinks that if he’d used a Chinese or Indian woman there would have been less condemnation). You might as well have put a sign on the mannequin reading Ceci n'est pas une chaise. Incidentally, the piece references an earlier work by the American artist Allen Jones who, in the late 60s, had a sculpture made in the same position. The mannequin was a white woman, however. That is why I think it is a futile exercise to get worked up about a piece of art that will soon be forgotten. I normally vent my frustration on what I think are more worthwhile causes.

Last year when I went to Havana I paid a visit to the indoor market near the harbour. What first caught my attention was that unlike the open and wide space Old Havana provided before to the traders, this new venue was not propitious to a continuous traffic of tourists. Maybe that was the reason why almost every man (and it was mostly men) selling paintings, theirs or not, had a huge selection of images of naked and half-naked Cuban mulatto and black women in various sexual poses in their stalls. To me that was art imitating life, though, since you can walk into any tourist or travel agency, in Cuba or abroad and most brochures will contain the obligatory image of the Cuban woman (often black or mixed race) being sensuous and teasing. For the life of me I couldn’t really bring myself to blame the artist who painted these women. He or she had to make ends meet in a very difficult and competitive environment. I blamed the government-sponsored culture that created this problem in the first place.

This is the same logic I follow with the “chair”. It is hard for me to get angry at a black mannequin shaped like a woman tied up, sat on by a Russian socialite and snapped at by a white Scandinavian when there are scantily clad black women constantly parading their goods in hip hop and rap videos on our television sets before and after the watershed and hardly anyone bats an eyelid. If we are serious about messages, let’s talk about the latter first, shall we?

Art is born in that unedited world I described before. It is the artist’s job to pull it out, work on it, edit it and give it to us in a way that might sometimes defy our expectations. The judgement we should be making is if the final piece fulfils its function as, first and foremost, art itself. If we fail to arrive at that conclusion, or cannot acknowledge the existence of this work of art my advice is to walk away without making any assumptions about the author and her/his intentions (unless they are explicit. Imagine if Melgaard were linked to the Ku Klux Klan or a far-right organisation!). It is obvious that this particular artistic effort was not for you. Perhaps what you need is to go find a chair on which you can sit down and reflect.

Sitting comfortably?
Yet another accolade for my blog. There was first the mention in the book “Multilinguals are...? four years ago. Then there was the inclusion in the first anthology of the Cuban blogosphere called aptly “Buena Vista Social Blog”. Now, comes an invitation to join a panel with three other bloggers next week, on Saturday 1st February at Google Campus, where Tech City joins Hipstersland. We will be talking about our experience of writing blogs from a Hispanic point of view. Although the event is marketed to those Spanish-speakers who want to start their own online venture and could do with some tips from us, oldies (almost seven years blogging is the equivalent of fifty years on the same job, believe me!), I know that it’s open to everyone, Hispanic, Spanish-speaker or not. So, if you happen to be in Londontown next Saturday 1st February, pop by. It would be a good opportunity to meet your actual, real, physical selves. Please, click here to find out exactly what the programme will be on the day. I look forward to seeing you there.

© 2014

Photograph: Buro 24/7screen grab

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 29th January at 11:59pm (GMT


31 comments:

  1. To me, colour made no difference. My horror was that a WOMAN should be used in such a gross pose. I know art is not always beautiful but it is often far too controversial.

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  2. A la pregunta, mi respuesta es que me escandalizó la segunda y que la tercera me escandalizó también. El color de la piel es lo de menos, el que sea mujer sí que tiene importancia para mí. Claro que si fuera un hombre en esa posición tan humillante me escandalizaría igualmente.
    Comprendo que comprendas lo del mercado de La Habana.
    Respecto a si es arte o no...pues verás Mario, yo tengo mis dudas. Si tomamos un mojón de la calle y un fotógrafo con mucho arte y lo capta ¿es esto arte o sigue siendo un mojón fotografiado?
    ¡Ojalá pudiera estar en el evento y darte un abrazo que no sea virtual como el que te dejo aquí!

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  3. How about this as an alternative interpretation? That the black woman is bearing the weight of the white woman and/or race? That the black woman has made possible the ability of the white woman to sit easily and prettily? This has more of an historical political feel to it. Whatever the interpretation, the artist has succeeded in this respect. The artist has made us think and react. It is not a piece one can ignore.

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  4. Congratulations on your work being recognized. It is a well-deserved accolade.

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  5. I agree with Judith, in that I think the chair is meant to make us think. It may be random or it may be offering us an initially shocking image to make us think about issues. Sometimes shock is the only way to make people think (though i admit to not really being a fan of shock tactics in these contexts)

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  6. that is really cool that you have been invited to sit on the panel...have fun with that...

    as to the art...art is provocative you know and sends messages...the artist has to know what will prick the mindset...the black/white thing...the black is more provocative because of the history of bondage there an contrast to the skin tone of the artist themselves....

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  7. It's not the colour of the woman...it's that it is a "WOMAN."

    I despise the chair!!!!!!!

    on the other hand, nice to meet you. x

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  8. cool on the event you mention and if i were in london i would def. love to go there... rgd. the chair...it def. sends a strong message...good art always does..it provokes...it connects what we see with the history we have experienced and read about and it wakes us

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  9. Good art always sends a message that will get people talking, always will be haters or lovers of it, no matter what it is. Congrats to you to.

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  10. hey, Cubano, been a while, glad to be back, hermano.

    always interesting, your post.

    well, first things first. i get the hoopla, historic significance and all that. hey, some folk are still raw over the slavery thing, who can blame 'em, slavery may be over (everywhere but at Apple & Nike) but its repercusions are still felt, and moreso for some folk than for other. but, you already know this.

    quite frankly, when i scrolled down and saw the pic my first, unadulterated impression was "wow! bondage!"
    it wouldn't make a difference whether the "chair" was white or black, i just liked the pose and all the nastiness it implied (i'll refrain from details of nasty fantasy), but think Betty Page and you'll get my drift.

    had the chair been a man, black or white, who knows? it certainly would have made a difference 'cause it would not turn me on. but i may have given thought to the racial issue, instead.

    what the heck, as you say, don't like it? just walk away, change the channel, avert you eyes, chill.

    Sundays at Cubanos are the best, good writing AND good music. i enjoy this week's selection, repeated a few times as i throw back my java.

    so, where your prose and the musical selection intersect, i find Bebe's song "Malo", i'm sure you're familiar, but just in case, i include a link.
    http://dai.ly/xcsuh8

    hey, congrats on the recognition, it is well, deserved. promise i will not take so long for my next visit.

    keep on bloggin', brother.

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  11. The pic made me think which is what art should do I feel; it should affect me, move me and set me thinking.
    Congratulations on the success of your very fine blog.

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  12. I couldn't stop looking at that picture. Yes, it was offensive and in-your-face. Yes, it piled all kinds of history and perspectives. Because it was an installation with real models, it was even more in your face that a painting.

    Congratulations are in order here for you and your measured soliloquy.
    I'm getting an education every time I visit.

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  13. The pic IS art ... unless the women were forced into posing like this, then it would be just another piece of garbage that we are fed everyday.

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  14. Cubano, I saw the photo when it was first published and it mildly irritated me. I don't think the color choice was random at all, it wouldn't be as provocative if it were a white woman. I think the best art always provokes but racism is so institutionalized within Western society that it's hard to separate it from any image in its media. I also was upset at the prospect of a white woman chair. The sexism is a whole other thing. Congrats on the panel! I so wish I'd be in Londontown to attend!

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  15. Many thanks for your comments.

    In my opinion, if we want our contribution to society (that "we" is written from the point of view of a black person, by the way) to be really valued and acknowledged, if we want to be included more in the decisions that shape our lives, then, it follows, that we will be faced with challenges that have perhaps been hitherto not considered or thought of. The way we react to controversies, whether provoked or not, speaks volumes of the capacity we have as a race, ethnic group or minority (words and phrases that developed their own definition over time) to face up to these situations. It might be OK for bandwagon-jumpers to lay into Bjarne and Dasha. It's less clear what an intelligent person would gain by wasting precious time and saliva on this work of art. As I mentioned in my column, this piece did not add anything to my appreciation of the visual arts world, it informed me of nothing new (other than the fact that it was a reference to a previous sculpture) and by next week, when I am on the panel with the three other bloggers, it will have left no impression on me.

    As they say on these shores, move on, folks, nothing to see here.

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

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  16. Another way of looking at this: Putin's friend's girlfriend sits on image of oppressed woman. Pretty shocking in the wake of the imprisonment of Pussy Riot.

    Should the Winter Olympics be given to countries which incarcerates its political prisoners (or any prisoners) in labour colonies like this? "A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the manufacturing zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfil impossibly large quotas, the convicts are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. A young woman was stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn't turn in a pair of trousers on time..."

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/24/pussy-riot-behind-balaclava

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  17. My definition of art is both narrow and snobbish. The photograph would not qualify as actual art in my view. Neither would the chair, for that matter.

    My first reaction is that here is a piece from an individual looking for the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame by dashing together an image which invokes thoughts of racism and the subjugation of women. If he had wished to be thorough, he should have found a way to include religion in the mix, as well.

    It was designed solely, I think, to create discussion, and in that, the piece did what it was meant to do. But, frankly, I do not think it is worthy of discussion in terms of artistic merit; it has none, and simply is a portrait of ugliness.

    Congratulations, CiL, on this latest recognition. Your blog is one of the most enjoyable and interesting I have found to visit, and I wish I could be present for your panel participation.

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  18. I think both chairs - regardless of the colour of the woman who is the chair - are meant to represent the oppression of women. But, of course, getting a white woman to sit on the black chair - and not vice versa - sends out signals of race oppression too, don't you think?

    When it comes to racism, there are lots of Africans reacting with disgust to the chair - and we have to take their feelings into account.

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  19. You've put together another thought-provoking post. It would be interesting to hear what the "artist" was attempting to express with this photograph. It certainly evokes feelings in me, but that doesn't mean I view it as "art".

    I don't think the choice of skin colors was random. If both women were of the same race, it would have projected a breakdown in "sisterhood", if you will. It would have depicted a competitive "dog eat dog" spirit between women. But when two different races are portrayed, no matter which woman is the "chair" and which is the model perched on it, I think the meaning depicted has definite racial overtones and meaning.

    I think photographs or artwork that juxtapose black and white can be beautiful, provocative, and memorable. This particular piece of work, however, falls short. Then again, it does has us thinking about it, doesn't it? Perhaps, in the end, that's all it was ever intended to do.

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  20. In reading the first part of your post, what startled me the most was the "tied-up" aspect. However, when I saw the photo, I immediately felt a weight of symbolism. Interpretation is within the viewer. If an S&M fan saw it, they might have a more positive spin, say the seated woman is repressed/hiding her true desires (or something). I couldn't help but think the opinions wouldn't be so mixed of the genders of the subjects were male.

    Interesting post. Thank you for your visits.

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  21. Good art always catches attention.
    I gasped when I first glimpsed this. But then I saw it as art...really great art.
    It could be interpreted in so many differing ways, depending on how deeply it is examined.
    Yes, it could be interpreted as the black woman taking the weight of the white woman - a form of slavery?
    But I see the black woman as the powerful one. She is sexily clad, extremely agile and is obviously essential for the comfort of the white woman...I mean...where could the poor unfortunate creature sit without her??? *smiles*
    Seriously?
    I couldn't take offence to this...it is simply a striking work of art!:)

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  22. Oops...meant to say...very well done with the recognition...you so deserve it!:)

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  23. Fram Actual and Susan Flett took the words out of my mouth. Given that I can't really add much to what they have said and that to discuss this-or even post it-is giving the artwork the credence and attention it probably doesn't deserve, I'll move on. I am quite annoyed however how some people here (non African/Caribbean I must add) are trying to spin this piece as 'empowering' for the 'black woman'. It's the same argument Beyoncé and her apologists put out there. Speaking as an African female it is incredibly frustrating to be either a) virtually invisible in mainstream media or b)when we are visible there's usually a sexual undercurrent or some other unflattering stereotype. It's here I'd add A Cuban, that in regards to the rumpshaking music video, there are many of us who do take issue with them and vocalise our grievances. I've waxed-lyrical about it on my blog and of course there are all those debates about misogyny in Hip-Hop (and R&B and dance music except they tend to get away with it for some reason). The problem is if you complain about it you're often dismissed as being uptight or censorious.

    Anyway, congrats on being invited to the forum.

    Shalom, Miss T x

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  24. Ah mario nunca el color de alguien par mi ha sido.importante cuando me llama la atencion la belleza de alguien generalme.te la belleza esta en los gestos.
    Por eso las poses muy provocativas no me atraen se pueden ver tantas cosas ahora.
    Demasiadas. Una de las mujeres que considero mas hermosa es Helen Berry me encanta comi es.
    Quizas estoy divagando pero tu tienes la culpa ha!
    Un abrazo y congrats!!

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  25. I found that photo very offensive. But it would have bothered me even if it was a white woman.

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  26. Fascinating article today. I think after having read your article I am less offended by the piece of art than I would have been had I NOT read all you say. I will look at it just as art and not value judge. But then I would not want this piece of artwork in my own home.

    I do think there are some artists of all kinds who are out there with the intent of shocking the public...you mentioned music as well. Sometimes SHOCK sells, and perhaps that is the bottom line.

    Congratulations on being chosen to join the panel. I hope that you will give a report here at sometime. My best to you from the land of the "Polar Vortex."

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  27. What a horrible photo! Yes, race makes it more offensive due to the history of slavery.

    Congratulations on the panel! I wish I were close enough to attend.

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  28. I didn't get a chance to comment on this the other day! I just don't think it's such good art! I mean, I really don't like that very metallic plastic feel - and I hate the fashion aspect of it-and I hate something just pushing for shock value. All your points are so well taken. Thank you. k.

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  29. I have seen the controversy around this of late! Interesting.

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  30. It's definitely thought-provoking. And I certainly wouldn't want one in my house! In a gallery, though? In a gallery I think there's some scope for pushing the boundaries, and artists are often deliberately provocative. I find this less repulsive than the Damian Hirst pieces with actual dead animals... and it would definitely have been possible to do the photo with a real woman, as performance art... I wonder if the reception to that would have been any different!

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