“Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is.” – Amiri Baraka
At this point in my life, I’m not particularly surprised by instances of racism (whether intended or not), but I’m no less disturbed when I see it or experience some aspect of it. Remember, Martin Lawrence and Lynn Whitfield in the 1996 romance comedy, “A Thin Line Between Love & Hate?” Well, whenever I see the exploitative fashioning of blackness or racial otherness, I feel like going Brandi (played by Lynn Whitfield) on their asses. As a black woman, it’s important to not only know your worth, but know how to sift through the bull that comes at you even from the most unassuming people and media formats because this game don’t love you, baby.
Photo Credit: Fashionbombdaily.com
When I first saw the photo of Dasha Zhukova, a Russian socialite and editor-in-chief of Garage Magazine, seated atop a black woman I was instantly in shock. Initially, at the idea that a black woman, or anyone for that matter, would even disgrace themselves in that manner, until I looked more closely and realized this was NOT an actual woman, but a CHAIR! A contorted black woman mannequin chair.
Ironically, the image was published by online magazine, Buro 24/7on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which only adds fuel to the fire. The chair was designed by Norwegian artist, Bjarne Melgaard, and according to FashionBombDaily.com, was inspired by a 1969 collection by British pop artist, Allen Jones.
Melgaard’s piece doesn’t seem as vile in comparison to the Allen Jones collection, but isolated from that we see something quite different. Dasha Zhukova, a white woman, comfortably seated on top of a work of art (object), a dominatrix-type black woman strapped and in a somewhat frozen-like state of submission. Not only does this image evoke a certain feeling of white dominance and superiority over the seemingly powerless, hypersexual black female body, it does so metaphorically through the use of an inanimate black female body.
There’s something questionable when an object, in this case a mannequin in the form of a half-naked black woman, is used as a prop and that image is selected to profile the story of a white woman, human and fully clothed. Puts me in the mind of the Cult of Domesticity or True Womanhood…the image then becomes less about Dasha Zhukova, and more about what she represents- purity and femininity in comparison to the black woman’s body objectified as non-human, recreation, or something to be restrained and controlled.
The chair becomes the exotic in what is a mostly white, natural setting, uninterrupted and unmoved by its lifeless black female body. The black body, though unreal, is present yet wholly unrelated, isolated, ignored, and without context. I know for some people they don’t see what all the fuss is about, but even Zhukova makes an excellent point in her apology excerpted below:
“I regret allowing an artwork with such charged meaning to be used in this context. I utterly abhor racism and would like to apologize to those offended by my participation in this shoot.”
The key words are “this context.” Who knows what Melgaard’s intention was when he created the piece. Even if there was no negativity behind it, the context changed the moment it was photographed and published with Zhukova seated on it. It’s critical to evaluate the meaning behind the meaning or the thought process of the artist and how that concept becomes a physical reality. What the artist saw, intended for you to see, and your interpretation of that work are three different layers, but therein, we find subtle messages that leave imprints on our subconscious minds.
Looking at the Allen Jones collection and Melgaard’s chair collectively, it can be troubling when we think about the uses of chairs and tables… these are objects of leisure, recreation, where we set things, or move and rearrange them according to our preference. What enters into our consciousness when we begin to associate such fixtures with women’s bodies? The use of Melgaard’s chair becomes problematic considering the ongoing battle to overcome the stereotypes and misrepresentations of black women and women of color, pervading American and global media and culture.
Melgaard’s chair used for Zhukova’s featured story has since been cropped, and both Buro 24/7 magazine editor, Miroslava Duma and Dasha Zhukova have issued statements of apology. But let’s be honest, in the world of public relations, apologies are almost always the right thing to do, whether it serves as a corrective or not.
How about we correct our mentalities and start using some common sense in the first place. For some reason the fashion industry feels like it’s entitled in the name of art, but you don’t get a creativity pass when it comes to race, racism, representation, and gender, whether real, symbolic, or imagined in art, the media (or at your private social gatherings that end up public, let us not forget the fiasco concerning the Disco Africa Halloween Costume Party).
You, yes you, fashion industry and everyone in between, gotta read between the damn lines… and there’s a very thin line between art and spectacle, especially when it concerns black bodies in media, real and otherwise.