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.
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.
Photograph: Buro 24/7screen grab
Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 29th January at 11:59pm (GMT