Let’s Art-iculate #6: Is The Arts World Racist?

A recent trend in the cultural sphere is the historical appropriation of works bearing racist titles. This is linked to the broader social discussion on why racism is still alive and kicking. The art world was treated to a novel pursuit taken up by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which started a project to rename artworks containing racist epithets to something more respectable, for example, Sam Maris’ Young Negro Girl, which has been renamed to Young Girl Holding A Fan. The project has opened up a huge debate on the historical significance of such titles. Are they crucial to the understanding of the artwork or are they a result of a flawed society?

Unfortunately, all of the big guns in the art world have refused to come aboard the anti-racist bandwagon. Nicholas Serota of the Tate has refused to take part and so have many other gallery directors, curators and others in charge. One argument frequently put forward is that it would be historically inaccurate to rename the artworks, yet, in an industry dominated by privileged white men, perhaps racism in the art world is more unconsciously ingrained than those in charge would care to admit.

While it would be unfair to judge these men without providing circumstantial evidence pointing towards the importance of racist artwork titles, there appears to be very little to support these claims. Art historians note that most artworks are not named by the artists themselves but rather by the people responsible for displaying them. Maris would not have been responsible for naming his painting.

“The word “Negro” is verbal poison to most educated people today”

When we go to galleries, we see artists trying to capture the world they live in. They present us with their version of truth. Be it a war scene or pictures of an apple, artists always strive to project reality in their own way. Perhaps the reason for Sam Maris’ painting being named so is a reflection of Dutch society in the 17th Century. Maybe they didn’t know how to refer to such people. Maybe they were racist supremacists. What we do know is that the word “Negro” is verbal poison to most educated people today.

A parallel protest to eradicate statues and motifs related to the British colonist Cecil Rhodes is going on in the University of Cape Town with a satellite movement to take down his statue in Oriel College, Oxford. Rhodes is a controversial figure in both South African and British history. At the forefront of the Oxford protests is the Mandela Rhodes scholar 2014, Ntokozo Qwabe who has been accused of “disgraceful hypocrisy”. He contends that Rhodes never had a scholarship and that he is taking his scholarship as remuneration for Rhodes’ looting in Africa.

Responding to Qwabe’s sentiments, Rhodes scholar Mary Beard has said, “Of course, I have some sympathy with the idea that an ethnic minority student in Oxford (the Capetown position may be different in many ways) could find it a bit in your face to have an image of Rhodes or any run of the mill Victorian racist staring down on them.” She adds that the problem is “…won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self-confident sense of unbatterability – much as I find myself looking up at the statues of all those hundreds of men in history who would vehemently have objected to women having the vote, let alone the kind of job I have.” Bidisha, a regular guest on the BBC, in support of removing the Oriel College statue of Rhodes wrote: “The prestigious Rhodes scholarship in his name can easily be renamed, and, indeed, I wonder why it’s taking so long.”

“The creative arts is the last frontier where racism is somewhat encouraged”

Bidisha’s article in The Guardian tackling racism in the art world provides us with a window to a huge cultural and social dilemma gripping the world at the moment. While cultural and racial assimilation is on everyone’s mind, white supremacists are increasingly acting out in fear of irrelevance. It is distressing to note that this year, 100 percent of the actors nominated for the Oscars were white. It should bother us, the audience, because the reason was not the scarcity of talented artists of colour, but the vehement disregard of them. Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, was the most grievous snub of the year. DuVernay blames the Academy’s cold-shoulder on her lack of connections within the Academy, which doesn’t give any explanation as to why any other artist wasn’t nominated. A wealth of talented actors and directors were up for nominations this year, including British artist David Oyelowo. It seems like racism is hardly addressed in the most visible cultural phenomena of our times.

The world is the freest it has ever been. Yet the creative arts is the last frontier where racism is somewhat encouraged. White characters and performers are more visible than almost every other demographic while people like Cecil Rhodes get the recognition they don’t deserve in the name of history. The future generations will have enough problems to deal with, so let us not gift them with a social problem that is highly unnecessary.

Sanchari Banerjee

Image credit: Mark Turner via Flickr

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