This originally was published in the Guardian CIF online and in print (23rd January 2014).
Black women as hypersexualised, abused and ridiculed objects is not new. Shame they are barely visible in their own right.
A photo of Roman Abramovich’s partner, Dasha Zhukova, sitting on a chair resembling a semi-nude bondaged black woman – published this week on a Russian fashion site – added to a painful list of black women’s bodies being treated as expendable objects. Regardless of the outrage that led to the photograph’s removal, the barrage of images like this one continues to demonstrate that pop culture, art and fashion are not only riddled with racism, but dependent on it. Shocking? Far from it.
In the past year alone the internet has exploded with similar debates about Miley Cyrus “twerking” with black women as props to her act, and Lily Allen using black women’s bodies in a music video to prove a “satirical” point about something or another. Like the gallery owner Zhukova and the fashion site Buro 24/7, neither they nor their teams considered what they were doing to be racist, sexist, or problematic to begin with.
What becomes particularly dangerous in these debates, however, is the insistence that art has a distinct right to offend, regardless of who or why it offends. The designer of the chair, the Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, is a prime example. According to Zhukova’s spokesperson, in reinterpreting works by Allen Jones, who used white women’s bodies as furniture, this chair provides a commentary on race and gender politics. But the question to ask is: who is it designed to shock and disturb?
The photo of Zhukova provoked outrage among black women, who are all too familiar with white women’s historical complicity in the oppression and injustices suffered by black women and men (as highlighted recently in the award-winning film 12 Years a Slave ).
While these images are offensive, painful reminders of being subjected to regular inhumanity, they aren’t shocking to black women, who are used to being portrayed as hypersexualised, abused and ridiculed objects. There is a long colonial history that stretches from academia to the everyday imagination in the form of cartoons, caricatures and even human zoos. One of the best-known examples is the Hottentot Venus, orSaartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a Khoi woman taken from the Eastern Cape and paraded all over 19th century Europe. Displayed for scientific examination and public entertainment, she was ultimately classified as both negro and orangutan. More than 200 years later, Baartman’s skeleton and a cast of her body remained on display in a museum – until the late 1970s. Her body offered a spectacle: one that read blackness, and black womanhood as inhuman.
Melgaard pays poor lip service to these racist tropes, arguing that “racism is a form of sexuality. It is all about sexual jealousy and sexual threat”. He might be attempting to confront the act of fetishism that is often involved in the gendered racialisation of black bodies – the eroticism and desire that underlies the disavowal involved in racism – but he does so by using black women’s bodies as collateral.
When Zhukova is photographed on the chair, to illustrate an interview devoid of context about the “art” in itself, this speaks volumes about which audiences are allowed to respond. In an art-for-art’s-sake world, artists are allowed to use real socio-political questions as impetus for their work, but have limited accountability. Those who are outraged and offended at the portrayal (yet again) of black women’s bodies – their bodies – as the expendable backdrop or prop to some ill-conceived artistic point are dismissed as either having misunderstood the “art”, or as being ungrateful to the artist for giving voice to their concerns. But injustice and denigration cannot be reduced simply to a piece in a gallery.
[NB: a different version originally was published on the site and prior the decision for it to appear in the paper.]