Sunday 20 May 2018

Cultural appropriation: less gatekeepers, more critical thinkers

"La Japonaise" by Claude Monet, Museum of Fine Arts Boston (image taken from

For Nandia

My first contact with the concept of cultural appropriation happened in July 2015 because of “Kimono Wednesdays” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA). On the occasion of the display of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise” (a painting of the artist’s wife, surrounded by fans, wearing a blond wig and a bright red kimono), visitors were invited to put on a kimono similar to the one shown on the painting and share their photos on social media. According to the museum, this was a way of engaging with the painting. For some people, though, the activity lacked any context regarding the garment, becoming just “fun”; others criticized it for reinforcing stereotypes and exoticizing Asian Americans; for others, it was blatant racism; (read Seph Rodney’s article). 

However, not all Asian-Americans, and especially Japanese-Americans (as well as many Japanese), shared the view that the event was “culturally insensitive, much less racist” (read Brian Boucher’s article). Protestors from both sides made their views known in front of the painting. The museum cancelled the event and issued an apology. Six months later, it organised a conversation in order to discuss “orientalism, racialized iconography, institutional racism, representation of minority groups, and cultural appropriation” and it questioned: “How can institutions such as the MFA be more accountable to their publics? Who speaks for whom?”. In front of 200 people, the museum’s director Matthew Teitelbaum said: “I want to start with an acknowledgment and an apology. We titled the program ‘Flirting With the Exotic’. That was misguided, and I apologize for sensationalizing an important issue.” (more on this conversation).

"Open Casket" de Dana Schutz, Whitney Biennal (Photo: @hei_scott no Twitter)

This whole thing got me thinking and I followed with an increased interest the controversy that erupted in 2017 regarding the display of
Dana Schutz’sOpen Casket” at the Whitney Biennal. The artist is white and the painting depicts the body of 14-year-old black boy Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching helped galvanise the Civil Rights Movement in the US. It was Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, who asked for the casket to remain open during his funeral to "let the people see." Dana Schutz felt touched by another mother’s drama. She said: “In her sorrow and rage, she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.” Protestors said that, being white, this was not her story to tell. Some stood in front of the painting in order to stop visitors from seeing it. Others asked for the painting to be removed and even destroyed.

This troubled me. Everyone has the right to protest, to give his/her different view on a topic or specific action. As people with all sorts of different backgrounds and life experiences, we also have different points of view and different sensibilities. Listening to others helps us see the world through someone else’s eyes, which is something that has become an absolute necessity in today’s political environment. But stopping others from seeing an artwork (or even asking for its destruction) is exercising censorship; they take upon themselves the right to define what may be discussed and on what terms, and, consequently, the right to prohibit. Are we assuming that only people directly related to a certain history may speak about it? And do all people related to a certain history think the same way? (just like with “White Wednesdays”, in the case of “Open Casket”, many African-Americans and black people in general had nothing against Schutz’s painting). Is Dana Schutz and any other parent not supposed (or allowed) to be touched by another mother’s pain, to talk about it? Isn’t this the kind of empathy we are seeking to reinstate in our society?

National Museum of African American History and Culture (Photo: Justin T. Gellerson / NYT)

My main concerns were addressed by Cuban-American artist and curator Coco Fusco in an article entitled Censorship, not the painting must go” . She wrote:Presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path. I would never stand in the way of protest, particularly an informed one aimed at raising awareness of the politics of racial representation, a subject that I’ve tackled in various capacities for more than 30 years. (…) A reasoned conversation about how artists and curators of all backgrounds represent collective traumas and racial injustice would, in an ideal world, be a regular occurrence in art museums and schools. (…) Black and her supporters argue that the painting is evidence of white insensitivity; that a ‘painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist’ cannot ‘correctly’ represent white shame; that it’s an example of an unacceptable practice of white artists transmuting black suffering into profit; that white artists who want to be good should not treat black pain as material because it is not their ‘subject matter’. (…) The authority to speak for or about black culture is not guaranteed by skin color or lineage, and it can be undermined by untruths. My 25 years of teaching art have shown me that a combination of ignorance about history and the supremacy of formalism in art education — more than overt racism — underlie the failure of most artists of any ethnicity to address racial issues effectively.” 

This notion is further explored in a very informative article on cultural appropriation by writer Kenan Malik: “One of the key arguments of many such critics is that one speaks through one’s identity; that one speaks, as writer Nesrine Malik has put it, ‘as a’: ‘as a woman’, ‘as a Muslim’, ‘as an immigrant’. And those who are not ‘as a’ must take their cue from those who are, especially if they happen to be privileged by being white or male or straight. ‘Lived experience’, as Malik has put it, ‘is on its way to becoming the superior and most veracious form of truth.’ And as the novelist Kamila Shamsie has observed, ‘What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.’”

More than once, I felt upset “as a privileged white European woman” about the attempts to impose on me certain definitions of racism and censorship in professional workshops. The first time, it was a workshop in Vienna on “Racism and Cultural Awareness”, funded by the European Union (I wrote about it on this blog). The second time was recently in Porto, where I attended a workshop on “Decolonising Imagination” at the IETM meeting. I attended with a genuine interest in seeing my views challenged and in exploring with other colleagues, of different backgrounds, the concept of cultural appropriation.

"Exhibit B" by Brett Bailey (Photo: Franck Pennant / AFP)

The moderator, Françoise Vergès, was a historian and political writer related to the movement Décoloniser les Arts. She started by commenting on the case of “
Exhibit B”, a show about ‘human zoos’ designed by (white) South African Brett Bailey and displaying black people in cages. Décoloniser les Arts tried to stop the performance. Without questioning the right to feel offended and to protest, I questioned the moderator whether putting pressure to cancel the performance or to stop people from seeing it is not counter-productive when we wish to engage in a debate; and whether it is not censorship. Vergès considered that it is a question of power (which, I assume, she conceives only as white power on previously colonised people). Thus, no, she didn’t think that her actions constituted censorship. Another participant told me that she followed the advice of a black friend whose opinion she trusts and didn’t go to see the performance, out of respect for her friend. I asked whether she followed her friend’s advice mainly because she trusted her opinion or because that person was black (two very distinct qualities for this debate). It was not mentioned in the session, but it is no less relevant for this discussion, that, once again the black performers of “Exhibit B” stated that they were “proud to be black performers in this piece’ and that, far from being racist, “Exhibit B” was ‘a powerful tool in the fight against racism’ (read their statement).

More opinions have been shared regarding these cases and cultural appropriation in general, which may be found at the end of this text. Of course, every case is a case and there’s no one-rule-fits-all. My conclusion so far is that there is a need for sensitivity and an open mind in order to discuss informed views and the sensitivities of others. The fact that some people see themselves as the sole representatives of certain communities, the self-appointed gatekeepers of the concepts of racism or cultural appropriation, is deeply problematic for me and does not contribute towards greater empathy among people of different backgrounds. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is a way of moving beyond our narrow worldview, of moving close to other people and their experiences.

Culture is interaction, culture is giving and taking. Quoting Seph Rodney once again, “We would benefit more from critical thinkers rather than gatekeepers. We are merely opportunistic and short-sighted when we close down conversations on the basis of sloppy thinking fueled by indignation.”

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