Ethnological Exasperation

An exhibit recently installed at London’s Barbican Centre has caused something of an uproar, with allegations of racism being brought against the exhibit’s creator, artist Brett Bailey. The exhibit — called “Exhibit B” — takes its inspiration from the “ethnological expositions” of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which indigenous peoples taken from European colonies where put on display to entertain stuffy white supremacist Victorian types. Typically, these “subjects” were black Africans, and, made to stand for hours behind bars or glass dressed in grass skirts or loin cloths, they were displayed to the public as ugly, unsophisticated savages. That recreating this sort of thing would prove controversial is wholly unsurprising.

The work consists of tableaux not unlike something you would see at the American Museum of Natural History, if people were treated like prehistoric animals. You can see more photos of Exhibits A, B, and C, all variations on the same theme, on the Web site of Bailey’s production company, Third World Bunfight. One actress portrays Saartjie Baartman, a woman who toured Europe as part of a freak show. She was known as “the Hottentot Venus.” Another actor is presented as “Nama man in glass cabinet.” Still another is simply labeled “Nama woman, animal trophies.” She’s accompanied by several stuffed antelope. In another scene, actors appear to be decapitated. The show progresses to scenes of modern asylum-seekers and immigrants who are characterized simply as “Found Objects.”

If the artist is simply repeating historical trauma, and the main objective is to shock, it’s inevitable that work falls into the tradition of “Crash,” “Django,” or even Donnelle Woolford. Black people may be the subject matter, but little consideration is given to them as members of the audience. When people protest those projects, part of what what’s being asked is whether the art, be it film, installation or otherwise is really communicating anything significant about race or falsely trading on the inherent gravitas we tend to give projects that concern themselves with that subject matter.

The thing these projects — “Django,” “Donnelle Woolford,” “Crash,” and “Exhibit B” — all have in common is that they were created by white men seeking to communicate messages about race, all in spaces that are dominated by white men. As such, they’re all funneled through that lens, and the question that pops up repeatedly is whether people of color and their history are being exploited.

This is a fair criticism to make.

Django Unchained featured an escaped slave as its titular character, depicted the sheer physical brutality of the southern plantation system, and showed how the trade of slaves between plantations tore families and loved ones apart. But the movie wasn’t really about slavery, was it?

No, of course not. It was revenge porn. It satisfied our sense of justice by showing us a broken and abused man rising like a phoenix from the ashes to exact justice from the unsuspecting pates of those who had wronged him. Slavery was a tertiary topic, briefly touched upon and rarely examined, the effects of which weren’t given their due analysis, as they were in, say, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

This isn’t to accuse Quintin Tarrantino of racism, or even bigotry. I really don’t think that’s the case at all. From his movies, it is pretty clear he has an appreciation of black American culture — both film and music — and has had long working relationships with a number of black artists. On the other hand, I can see why black Americans may find Django upsetting. The legacy of slavery is still alive and well in this country, and black Americans are still suffering its effects. It’s a serious matter, and treating the subject as little more than a backdrop in what amounts to a farcical neo-blaxploitation film could be seen as not treating slavery with the seriousness it deserves. As the article notes, merely writing slavery into a story automatically lends it a kind of seriousness, for “daring” to tackle such a big topic, regardless of how slavery is actually explored, if at all. In other words, it puts asses in seats, and one would be totally justified in wondering whether or not white artists choose to depict slavery for just that particular reason.

It is also perfectly justified to question the focus of these depictions. Do they concern themselves with those who principally suffered under slavery, or do they concern themselves with white people looking for some kind of forgiveness, or simply restating the old “not all white people are racist” canard?

Let’s for a second shift our attention away from slavery and instead take a look at another racist atrocity perpetrated by white America: the near-extermination of our country’s indigenous peoples. With the popularity of western films throughout the early and mid 20th century, I would argue Native Americans are historically the people most exploited by the movie industry. Throughout countless films and television and radio shows, Native Americans have been portrayed as both foil and ally, but rarely depicted accurately and almost never treated as human beings. The film Dances with Wolves was something of a game changer in this regard. If not the first mainstream film to shine a critical light on the treatment of the Plains Indians by the American government, it was certainly the most successful. And, unlike other productions, its Native American supporting characters were depicted in a very human light. Rather than a ragtag band of savage warriors, the Lakota were shown to run the gamut of human character, from fiery warriors to thoughtful priests to deliberate leaders.

Still, there’s reason to be critical of the film. The main character, a white man, is shown to be the tribe’s savior, the one among them who finds the buffalo and who commands the defense against the rival Pawnee (who are depicted far less positively than are the Lakota). It’s a sad slurry of white guilt and white savior syndrome, as if the author is looking for forgiveness from Native Americans while at the same time thinking them so utterly helpless that they could have defended themselves if only there were more white people teaching them how to hunt and how to fight. It’s ridiculous, of course. The Native Americans were not beaten into submission because they didn’t understand weapons or tactics, but because they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. Even if a hundred white Army officers had defected to the Lakota, they would have still found themselves in the position they are today.

White guilt, however, is perhaps more offensive. It takes the focus off the Native Americans and puts it square on white guy instead. The story confuses who the real victims were, and makes the movie less about how the Native Americans were being exterminated and corralled into reservations and more about this poor white guy who “really gets it”, but has to live with the fact most of his own people are total pricks.

I’m not sure what Brett Bailey intended with Exhibit B, and that’s mostly because Bailey really hasn’t made the effort to tell anyone. Perhaps he thinks the art will speak for itself. There is also, after all, an attitude among high-culture artists that having to explain a piece of art robs it of its “magic”. They expect that people should stand for several minutes ponderously examining a piece until they reach some conclusion as to what it means. The artist will never confirm nor deny any of these interpretations because 1) he or she believes the piece means whatever the viewer thinks it means, or 2) it doesn’t really mean anything at all.

You can spout this kind of drivel if you’re painting giant black dots or submerging statues of Christ in jars of your own piss, but you can’t very well expect to do the same when LARPing Victorian-era racism. If you’ve got something to say, then you need to open your mouth and say it. You can’t expect people to wander through your exhibit trying to suss out the meaning of your quasi-racist Frankenstein’s monster as you stand in the corner giggling at everyone who “doesn’t get it”.

The line between thought-provoking and just plain provocative can be very thin, indeed, and artists should be mindful of that when approaching painful subjects that haven’t entirely faded from the consciousness of those most affected. Subtlety and vagary may suit other subjects, but they aren’t helpful here. If these are tools you wish to employ, you shouldn’t act surprised if someone assumes the worst of you.


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