Sunday, 21 September 2014

INSIDE MY SKIN: WHITE 'MADAM' AND 'BLACK' ART


INSIDE MY SKIN: WHITE 'MADAM' AND 'BLACK' ART.

I am starting again. It is a treat to quote an intelligent comedian like Tim Minchin who advocates nuanced thinking. Nuanced thinking is needed when we consider the petition to ban Brett Bailey's Exhibit B. Like many of those writing about it I haven't seen it. It's 800k away from me across France. I have read  the arguments however and they are important to me and my art. 

Dividing the world into black and white is plain silly because the world is not divided into simplistic opposites and never has been.

Brett Bailey's Exhibit B does of course raise questions for artists and humans with thin skins or thick hides of whatever shade they are on the outside. Art is supposed to shake up ideas.



I am white and I have made art about Africa. I was born in Africa and lived most of my life there. I don't speak on behalf of other people. I speak of what I feel and think I know. What I think and know changes as I learn and change. The colour of my skin should not stop me saying what I feel unless I prevent someone else from being heard by saying it or if I defame someone. I should not be silenced but asked to listen.

Sara Myers' boycott seems to be based on the idea that Brett Bailey and all white South Africans are racist. They aren't. He isn't as far as I can judge.

Yes - there is racism – and bigotry in the world but banning an exhibition won't change that and a boycott may be inadvertently racist and bigoted if it doesn't have the whole picture.

The world and art can't be improved by claiming that there is a clear gulf between what's right and what's wrong, between what's black and what's white.

The world has never been that simple.

Going to war for simplistic reasons is not helpful.

Fighting for understanding is not going to war.

Banning, boycotting and destroying art is almost without exception bad for human liberty, freedom of thought and autonomy. If you don't like Exhibit B then go and make art of your own- write your own books – start a counter culture, create a new one. Bad art tends to disappear and die soon enough. What matters is that art provokes arguments and discussions, it can change perceptions, it can make us feel and therefore think and disagree.

Exhibit B and Brett Bailey have made us see people suffering but he wasn't doing it to humiliate anyone - what would that achieve?

There is resistance to this kind of show but not because people are callous or don't care or are racist but because it is painful. Guilt and responsibility are hard to handle but victims hate this stuff too. Any therapist will tell you that.

Perhaps this is a reason why Sara Myers is angry with it? I expect it would upset me very much too.

During the Slave Trade there were white British people who were made poorer by it, white people who had no connection to it and some who would have opposed it. The Slave Trade made some people very rich. Though some countries benefited greatly not all their citizens did. Lets hit the right targets.

Why did Bailey get such a bad press when it was okay for black Steve McQueen to make 'Twelve Years a Slave.' and for white Brad Pitt to produce it?

Perhaps because his show is more accessible than the film to demonstrators who need to vent their feelings about it.

The pain and discomfort of the 'exhibits' – the people who 'acted' is what all actors who choose to play grim roles suffer. It is certainly very difficult and upsetting to write or make art about abuse of any description.

Freak shows? Is not most reality television a freak show? Aren't freaks and celebrities often the same people? Don't we love freaks and learn to empathise by internalising their suffering? Don't artists and the creative process exist on the borderlines between 'normal' and 'freak'?

Brett Bailey is South African. He lives in South Africa where all races are equal under the law and people of all races and colours contributed to the fight for freedom. He has the right to speak on any subject including slavery. He has the right to be wrong. No one can shut him up because they don't agree with him. Free speech is one of the foundations of democracy.

Would there – or should there - have been this outcry if Bailey had had a black skin? Or been a black woman? Then again would a black man or woman make this kind of art? Well - yes they have – there are many examples in contemporary art.

Look at Kara Walker's 'Sugar Baby'


It looks wonderful and probably justifies its scale and expense. I would like to ask Walker what she thinks of Exhibit B and of Brett Bailey but I don't know what answer she would give. It does seems that slavery still creates divisions between black and white Americans. Why and how that gulf continues to exist needs to be the subject of another discussion.

I remember in Johannesburg in about 1991 seeing an installation by Penny Siopsis about slavery and its relationship to the sugar trade – she is a white South African. http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/penny-siopis


So are we judging art or artist or skin colour when we compare these three exhibitions?

What I personally see as problematic about the Bailey and Walker exhibitions is their enormous cost and their position in the 'billionaire art industry of the world' but that is also a discussion for another occasion.

How would Exhibit B have been seen if the slaves represented were white and the slave masters black? Would that change perceptions? Does this exhibit say that having a black skin gives you more of a propensity to be enslaved than a white skin? I don't think so.

That is not the lesson of history. Slavery has been around ever since there were humans. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Hebrews, Europeans, Africans – all practised slavery. It seems there have always been forms of bondage and slavery. Today, though illegal in most of the world, it is even more profitable. The scale of the Triangle Trade, its acceptance as normal and its links to industry and commerce made it enormous and monstrous. The Holocaust was genocide on an industrial scale which makes it unthinkable though true but these terrible crimes were not the only ones to happen in human history. Jews and black people, whites and gentiles have been perpetrators as well as victims.

The human scale however is always personal and humans need to deal with these horrors personally and individually regardless of their outer covering of skin.

South African Resistance Art - another example - was made by artists of different colours.


I come from an involvement with art in Zambia where I facilitated artists, exhibitions and workshops before 1994 so I was also interested in the art of the other Frontline States and South Africa. In the 80's when I first worked with artists in Zambia I was called 'Madam' which I hated but things move on fast and that soon stopped. There have been great changes in Zambia and Southern Africa and its art since then.  At that time Zambian artists wanted to study at art school but the few white people who bought African art wanted intuitive and na├»ve art which they considered more 'authentic'. That split between artists and among buyers could be seen in South African art of the same time too. What I learnt from Zambian artists however, is that they wanted to be equal among all artists. No artist wants to be defined by their skin or for race to be part of the consideration of their art. They don't want to make money from phoney 'authentic' art but to make their own personal art.

This was my part of my installation about the significance of water to expatriate and African women.
 
    




This is my portrait of an artist from the inside – the inside of my skin. My flesh coloured not skin coloured inside is like everyone's inside.
 




It complicates the world to be simplistic about colour, class, race and people.

Skin, identity, gender and race are not fixed. My own family is mixed and unfixed. Humans, society, the world - they are always changing.
Tomorrow's world will not judge people by the colour of their skin but we will still be fighting exploitation, slavery and injustice and we will still be making art.

Look at these nuanced and powerful paintings made by  Bulelwa Madekurozwa.





 

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