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We Are Here with Lynn Ha

Starting from a rather solemn statement, We Are Here explores the oftentimes precarious relationship between art and ethnic minorities by contemplating a broad range of art and art historical texts. Looking into various artworks and texts fortnightly, whether that be art made by ethnic minorities, artworks portraying them, or texts on decolonisation and orientalism, it aims to address the existence of the peoples in art that has not been voiced for long. Although discussion on race, ethnicity, discrimination, and exclusion is and should be unsettling and demanding - even when accompanied by joyful patches of colours - We Are Here endeavours to begin this conversation by giving awareness to the very being of equal individuals who were or still are 'here.'


A Machine Can Do the Same

Against the unnecessary violence in Damien Hirst’s dead animals — Can’t Help Myself shows possibility of shocking art without slaying lives Monday, May 9th

Perhaps hoping that art could ‘do’ something in or ‘to’ society, and hoping for it to mean something, is a shared wish among artists and art historians. Even if one is not an avid proponent of the so-called ‘social history of art’, nor a person knowledgeable about the notion, a desire for art’s impact on humanity is definitely not uncommon to have. In fact, the widespread association of art with human emotions and feelings evidently reflects such desire. However, the problem arises when artists take lives to produce artworks, and ‘feelings’.

Damien Hirst Exhibition at Gagosian Gallery (Photograph: artlyst.com)


The ongoing exhibition at the Gagosian near King's Cross, London showcases Damien Hirst’s ‘groundbreaking works employing formaldehyde’, as the gallery’s online exhibition catalogue reads. Having never seen any of Hirst’s works in person before, there was certainly a level of excitement to seeing his notorious pieces that I have only seen through photographs in articles and books. However, the shock that I felt completely overshadowed the warnings that I received — and which I have given myself as well — before going to the exhibition. Being astonished by such well-known works of Hirst, despite having been hyper-aware of their cruelty, was most definitely not a response that I anticipated from myself. Yet what I felt when I first saw in front of me a beheaded body of a cow, in a container filled with formaldehyde, was pure shock and fear. Looking at dead animals that were killed to make art made me wonder, in a sense of shame as a person who studies and loves art, what sort of position contemporary art has taken in the present society.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Can’t Help Myself, 2016, Kuka industrial robot, stainless steel and rubber, cellulose ether in colored water, lighting grid with Cognex visual-recognition sensors, and polycarbonate wall with aluminum frame, Guggenheim Museum New York (Photograph: Guggenheim Foundation and Museum)

After the ‘feelings’ came questions. Of course, the works’ cruelty and unethical aspects cannot be doubted, but as a dear friend of mine — who despises Hirst for valid reasons — that I accompanied to the exhibition asked me, 'Do you think a painting would have done the same?’, I had to answer with a certain ‘No.’ The public’s fascination and interest in Hirst’s works have focused on their shock-factor, and the criticism toward him and his works also has formed around ethical ‘questions’, such as whether it is ethical to kill animals for the creation of artworks. And over the past decade or so, with the necessary, extended discourses on how humanity ‘had treated’, ‘have treated’, and ‘will treat’ the environment, what previously was perceived as a ‘question’ has met with a firm, agreed pronouncement that ‘it is not’. The Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern in 2012, for example, would have met with a far more antagonistic public response if it were taking place in present-day London — or so, I would have thought. Surely, a painting of the same subject matter as Hirst’s God Alone Knows would not have done the same. And taking the lives of creatures for making art just so that they ‘do’ things to the audience is nothing but unethical. But would extreme emotions really not be invoked without dead animals? Can works of art really not be equally shocking without the act of killing? I mean, what happened to the art world’s definition of ‘shock’ — from a witty statement of Duchamp’s Fountain to now, slaying to ‘feel’ something?

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Dogs Which Cannot Touch Each Other, 2003, (Photograph: kidsofdada.com)

Can’t Help Myself, the striking work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a contemporary Chinese artist duo, seems to provide an answer to such questions. The work is a conceptual piece, a custom-designed machine that is displayed in a clear acrylic cage, in its constant struggle to scrape the blood-red liquid that it stands in the middle of, and to confine it within the area of set radius. The machine, whilst being in labour for this ‘Sisyphean task’, also performs thirty-two ‘dance movements’ that the artists designed, in collaboration with two robotic engineers. Because of the innately unachievable task demanded in the system of the machine, it is destined to be in ceaseless movements, interminably. The work was commissioned for the Guggenheim Museum New York in 2016, then displayed in an exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019, and then interestingly continued its emotional impact on a wider audience online, suddenly going viral on TicTok early this year in January. Numerous tweets commented on how the work affected them emotionally, many of which saw ‘agony’ and ‘trauma’ in the duo’s piece. The fact that looking at a moving ‘thing’ in a cage, not having any agency in its movement, sparked emotional reactions from people is perhaps no surprise, as studies in neuroscience have shown that the limbic system — part of the human brain that is associated with emotions and long-term memory — reacts when recognising robots ‘being treated harshly’ in a way similar to when recognising human bodies in the same condition. In an interview, the artist Sun Yuan explained, holding a prototype of the machine in his hands, ‘I think an artist’s work is a reflection of his or her will. The artist doesn’t need to be present on-site, physically. Instead, you rely on an agent to carry out your will. This is my agent. It has limitless endurance. No one can match its endurance. All you need to provide it with is your will.’ By choosing an industrial robot as the mode and ‘agent’ to express their thoughts on human emotions, and the relationship between humanity and human-made objects, Can’t Help Myself successfully sparks many questions including those on contemporary politics, science, and ethics. Without taking any lives, the work still ‘does’ something to the audience, whilst engaging with similar existential, ‘series matters’, as Hirst’s works, but in a way Hirst thought impossible, or one that he merely decided not to consider. In truth, it is not only the works of Hirst that the piece stands against but also the earlier work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu themselves, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other. In the piece, dogs were strapped to treadmills facing each other, forced to run for seven minutes, followed by seven minutes of rest, and then to run for another seven minutes. The Guggenheim Museum, having received mass outcry, came up with a puzzling public statement that discards the demanded ethical consideration: ‘The curators of the exhibition hope that viewers will consider why the artists produced it and what they may be saying about the social conditions of globalisation and the complex nature of the world we share.’ In both Hirst’s formaldehyde works and Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, ‘deep meanings’ and ‘serious matters’ seem to be the reason and the justification for the cruelty and violence against animals. Returning to the premise of this column, the idea of writing articles fortnightly under the broad idea of discussing the relationship between ethnic minorities and art came from a very personal place in my heart. As a person of colour studying art history and who loves art, I have hoped to shed light on the complex problems inherent in the canon of the discipline that seemed almost impossible to tackle. I still at times feel a sense of frustration when encountering such problems intertwined with notions of colonialism, discrimination, and racism, and if I am being honest, with the sense of frustration comes naturally and inevitably mental fatigue. Whilst voicing about ethnic minorities in both art and society is still very much needed, perceiving the notion of ‘minority’ in a broader way is also equally important. I believe that society, and especially people engaged in the art world in one way or the other, share the responsibility to keep talking about how minorities are treated in art, regardless of the kind of species they are — whether they are humans or not. Now is the time to seek different ‘agents’ that artists can use to express their ‘will’, ‘agents’ without lives and bodily agency, because showcasing violence is not poignant nor deep. Art can avoid cruelty against animals in expressing ‘the complex nature that we share’ in contemporary society, and still be ‘groundbreaking’, as Can’t Help Myself clearly shows to be possible. Links to relevant sources:

Situating Dansaekhwa,

Positioning South-Korean Art History Dansaekhwa — a Korean Take on Monochrome, or a Form of East-Asian Spiritual Practice? Friday, March 25th

Have you heard of Dansaekhwa? Probably not. (In case you are lost with the extremely unhelpful romanisation of Korean letters, it is pronounced dan - saek — similar to the pronunciation of ‘sac’ — hwa.) Dan meaning single, saek colour, and hwa painting, it literally translates to ‘painting(s) with a single colour or tone’, and is a Korean term very similar to ‘monochrome painting’ in the English language. Dansaekhwa is commonly understood as a strand or a movement in modern Korean art that emerged in the 1970s in South Korea, having taken a huge influence from the West’s notion of minimalism in art, amidst the post-war sentiments of its socio-political situation. Although the paintings do appear similar to the monochrome and abstract paintings of the West, there is a significant difference in their reason for being ‘monochrome’, or ‘dan-saek’. Undoubtedly, there lies a degree of shock factor in the roots of Western abstract paintings. The shift from the long-standing history of figurative Western-European oil paintings to the sudden abstraction that extremely reduced its use of colours inevitably would have been a refreshing picture, if not a disturbing one. On the other hand, the traditions of Korean paintings — similar to its neighbouring East-Asian artistic traditions — were oftentimes black and white ink-and-wash, referred to as Sumukhwa, in which the aspect of colour was of less importance from the beginning.

Park Seo-bo, Ecriture No. 37-73, 1973, pencil and oil on canvas (Image: White Cube)

Furthermore, in contrast to the rather vague, umbrella term ‘Western abstract painting’, Dansaekhwa carries the fundamentally Korean idea of ‘neutrality’, which links closely to the country’s deeply embedded Confucianist and Buddhist ideals of spiritual practice and asceticism. Whilst Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism, for example, focuses on the ‘act’ of painting, displaying the so-called ‘action painting’ as a Modern form of masculine labour, Park Seo-bo’s Ecriture works pay attention to the repeated act of scratching the white, painted surface of the canvas with a pencil, echoing the importance of seeking for the ‘simplicity’ of life that Korean culture roots in. Such searching for austerity, simplicity, and consistency goes hand in hand with the yearning to be in sync with nature, and further, to be ‘like’ nature, remaining neutral in any circumstances. Through the traditionally established Buddhist belief, ‘suhaeng’, a repeated practice that is often tedious or difficult, was encouraged, in order to achieve spiritual serenity. Hence, whereas the emotional quality of Mark Rothko, for instance, would lie in the audience reception, a lot of Dansaekhwa paintings including Park’s works lies in the act of painting as ‘suhaeng’, and the paintings stand as the evidence for the artist’s struggle to gain the ultimate spiritual comfort. What is most interesting for me about Dansaekhwa, however, is the relatively scarce yet emerging recent formation of art-historical discourse on its positioning within the ‘global history of art’ or the ‘global canon’ of art history — whether or not such notions really do exist opens up an entirely new, but highly relevant, discussion. In fact, Dansaekhwa stands in a rather awkward and obscure place even in the scope of abstract art of Korea. Although being considered the epitome of Korea’s modern art, it also interestingly seems to be at the centre of South-Korean contemporary art. Both Hakgojae and Kukje Gallery, two of South Korea’s galleries that bear significant importance in fostering public awareness and art-historical discourses on modern and contemporary art, have been paying close attention to the movement in the past few years. Hakgojae, opening the new year with the exhibition Seeking ‘Eidos': Korean Abstract Painters 7 in early January 2022, had made a statement stressing the importance of the cultural heritage of Korean abstract paintings, and attempted a re-evaluation of its stance in the global art world. Even though the paintings in the exhibition not only include Dansaekhwa but also other kinds of abstract paintings, including surrealist or surrealist-influenced works, the catalogue gives much emphasis on the increasing international interest in Dansaekhwa as the symbol for the emergence of ‘K-Art’ in the global market, and has an ambitious outlook on the future of contemporary Korean art. The Dansaekhwa works of Ha Chong-hyun, another prominent first-generation Dansaekhwa artist, are planned to be presented in his solo exhibition at Palazzetto Tito (Istituzione Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa) as a collateral event of the 59th Venice Biennale upcoming this April.

Ha-Chong Hyun, Conjunction 18-20, 2018, oil on hemp cloth (Image: Amine Rech Gallery)

Yet, there are quite a number of artists questioning, let alone actively disagreeing with, their works being labelled Dansaekhwa. Park Seo-bo stresses the fact that his works’ most important quality is not that they are of singular colour, but rather that they show struggles of himself to understand and become one with nature’s neutrality and serenity. Although it might sound a little absurd at first, this is not a rare case seen in the intersections between artists and art historians. Most of the time, the use of ‘isms’ to explain, critique, and sum up a certain group of artworks are coined much after their production and imposed onto them only retrospectively. Inevitably, art history is always later than art. Thus, what is more interesting is how the lexicons formulate art historical discourses, which then influence the productions of artworks by determining the market value of such works. Dansaekhwa would be one of the numberless examples that show such engagement and interrelations between the production of art and art history. Since coined by art critic Yoon Jin-sup at the third Gwangju Biennale in 2000, Dansaekhwa has become the hot potato of South Korean art history. Exhibitions that remind one only slightly of Dansaekhwa are marketed in a way that link them with the term. At the core of this heightened attention is the anticipation that Dansaekhwa could function as an art-historical notion original to South Korean modern and contemporary art, through which art could be talked about without falling into Western narratives, or as passive ‘responses’ to the Western notion of modernity. The formulation of discourses around Dansaekhwa, therefore, is essentially an effort to decolonise Korean art history. Nonetheless, questions on Dansaekhwa’s position as ‘the Korean’ modern and contemporary art movement still remain unanswered. The meaninglessness of separating Dansaekhwa from its Western monochrome paintings is raised by many art historians and art critics. Some argue it is an insignificant part of Korean history of art. Perhaps most importantly, artists have expressed the limits of the marketing and branding of Dansaekhwa as paintings with a fundamentally ‘Korean', and ‘East-Asian’ spiritual quality. Art historian Kate Lim recalls a conversation with Lee Ufan, another well-known Dansaekhwa artist, where he said, ‘The conversation with Western gallerists ends at the very moment you tell them your works are of East-Asian sentiments.’ Perhaps, the fact that Korean abstract art is always mentioned in relation to their Western counterparts — Dansaekhwa with monochrome paintings, for example — might be a telling proof that shows decolonising Korean art history will require a very long discourse. Discourses around Dansaekhwa reveals how decolonising art history is a task of great difficulty; looking at Dansaekhwa as part of the monochrome family could diminish distinctive attributes that carry a huge part of Korean culture, yet excessively emphasising the ‘Korean’ aspect of Dansaekhwa can end up as a way of ‘othering’ and reducing the artistic scope of the paintings as a mere strand of South-Korean abstract art that carries ‘oriental sentiments’. Nonetheless, the discourses of Dansaekhwa, still taking place at the moment on both a global stage and within the domestic, do encourage such decolonising efforts to keep on going. ‘Korean abstract art cannot be fully explained through Western abstract art’s genealogy……. Thus, this exhibition throws the following agenda on the horizon of Korean art: What are the similarities and differences between Korean and Western abstract paintings? Is there any family resemblance in Korean abstract paintings, and if so, what is the essence of its formative bloodline? How did Korean abstract painting feed on tradition? How can Eastern and Western aesthetics meet?’ The catalogue of the January 2022 exhibition at Hakgojae reads clearly on its stance in decolonising Korean art and art history, claiming Korean art with its own art history and art-historical language, and ‘rewriting the history of Korean abstract painting with “I” and “us” as the main subject.’ Links to relevant sources: http://art.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2019/06/19/2019061903646.html https://aaa.org.hk/en/collections/search/library/dansaekhwa-korean-monochrome-paintingglobalisation-and-the-cultural-strategy https://terms.naver.com/entry.naver?docId=3574154&cid=58861&categoryId=58861 https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20141221011700005 https://www.blumandpoe.com/news_item/ha_chonghyun_palazzetto_tito_venice_italy https://www.alminerech.com/artists/3849-ha-chong-hyun https://artsandculture.google.com/story/6AUBKFzj2DjESQ

Wrong Reasons, Absent Feelings

Glenn Ligon’s We Are Black And Strong and the dubious attitudes of the Western press on Ukraine Friday, March 4th

Although it could not compare in any way to the physical and emotional terror that people in Ukraine are going through, walking in central London the past couple of days was a surreal experience. Passing by and standing with people in Trafalgar Square, seeing a big wave of blue and yellow flags held by people from various backgrounds including Russia, voicing their support and solidarity for Ukraine and condemning the cruelty of the war, was an emotional and powerful scene. Again, however, the fact that I could not comprehend the situation and feel an extreme absurdity about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a telling proof that I am in the position of privilege, having the capacity to be taken aback and distance myself by reacting merely emotionally to the current acts of violence.

Protest in London for Ukraine

In the protests, people held various signs, big and small, with phrases such as ‘STOP THE WAR’, and ‘I STAND WITH UKRAINE’, packed with both images and words of sympathy. Protest panels and signs mostly incorporate texts and images that speak effectively and concisely about the topics they are vocal about; they seek to create a spur of emotional reactions and demand the passer-by's attention and awareness. The signs in a protest inevitably are, and must be for the sake of its aim, loud.

Glenn Ligon, We are Black and We are Strong

This is the reason why I was startled when seeing Glenn Ligon’s silkscreen work We Are Black And Strong I. The work, a photograph of a protest scene with great verisimilitude, features a blank, plain-white banner at its centre. The visual enigma becomes even more mysterious when taking the bodies in the foreground into consideration. Because they are pitch-black, in stark opposition to the whiteness of the banner, their forms and shapes are hard to read. The visual contrast creates a density of the population of the protest, and makes the few fists that are raised for solidarity seem much more poignant. Ligon’s work is an altered version of a photograph that was taken from the Million Man March, a gathering of a great number of African-American men in Washington DC on 16 October 1995, called primarily by the leader of NOI (Nation of Islam), Louis Farrakhan. Although the aim of the march was closely linked to important issues including the US’s economic and cultural racism — the building of stereotypes of African-American peoples in media, for example — the march stands in a rather questionable position because of a few reasons, including its connection to Farrakhan and its accused sexism. Farrakhan is certainly a controversial figure, known as a black supremacist, black nationalist, and anti-White conspiracy theorist, who was known to be distanced by Obama during his presidential election campaign. He is also accused of being an anti-Semitic racist, making problematic remarks on Judaism in his speeches, repeatedly referring to it as the ‘dirty religion’ and the ‘gutter religion’. In his earlier career as a musician, he was also accused of highly sexist and misogynist lyrics, which are echoed in critiques on the premise of the Million Man March as an event excluding women. In fact, the Million Man March ran parallel with the Day of Absence, where African-American women were encouraged to stay home as an indirect participation in the march, rather than taking an active role in Washington. Born in 1960 in New York, the American artist Glenn Ligon is known for works that speak for African-American identity and address the subject of race, perhaps I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background being the best example of his works’ racially engaging quality. Hence, in his enigmatic work We Are Black And Strong I, Ligon points out the ‘absence' of women that was ever more present in the Million Man March, criticising the one-sidedness of the event that claimed to fight for black rights. The striking absence of words and images on the banner functions as a symbol for the absence of African-American women, and perhaps more importantly, the absence of the societal inclusion of women of colour in social and political events, and the lack of encouragement for them to take active roles, even among black activist organisations.

Glenn Ligon, I Feel the Most Colored When

Looking closely at Ligon’s We Are Black And Strong I, the absence and silence that the work puts forward reminded me of the Western press’s highly problematic and racist attitudes relating to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Western media has and still does choose to emphasise the gravity of the situation by stressing that ‘this is Europe we are talking about’. CBS’s senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata spoke live from Kyiv:’This isn't a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades’. ‘This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully too — city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen’. As the journalist Mehdi Hasan rightly pointed out on MSNBC accordingly, the constant emphasis of media that shouts ‘this is Europe, not a developing Third World nation’ reveals the roots of the Western press’s urge for compassion and their demand for refugee intakes — ‘because they are white Europeans’. Such a racist undertone really echoes the ‘othering’ of ethnic minorities — the pain of white Europeans is accentuated and hence met with empathy because they are perceived as individuals, whereas that of peoples of the Middle East, for example, is diminished, because they are thought of as masses, as bodies, and as ‘others’. ‘As pictures of protest, this [these] images are eerily silent', the online catalogue of Whitney Museum of American Art describes Ligon’s silkscreen painting as such. As we all make noise and create loud images to stand with Ukraine, I firmly believe that we should also pay attention to the absence and the silence that is being placed on different parts of the world that are experiencing and have undergone similar situations. We all need to stand with Ukraine. Yet the West’s reason to stand with Ukraine should not be because the people and refugees at stake resemble their friends and family members, not because they are ‘European people with blue eyes and blonde hair’, and not because they are white Europeans. To tell the truth, ever since deciding to write about this topic, I have been concerned that I might come across like that guy who talks about men’s suicide rates and mental health only on International Women’s Day. I did not want to give an impression that I am addressing the relative absence of press coverage and the West’s silence on the crises in Palestine and Afghanistan for example, in order to diminish the gravity of the situation in Ukraine, nor did I want to give an impression that stands against the emotional empathy and military support that Ukraine is getting. Nevertheless, there needs to be a comment on the very way the press talks about and stresses the severity of the situation in Ukraine. It is not the fact that Ukraine is getting more support and press coverage I problematise, but the reason behind it. The hypocrisy and racism is so telling. I stand with Ukraine. But I do not stand with it because it is a ‘relatively civilised, relatively European society’ at stake. I wholeheartedly believe that Western society must open its borders for the Ukrainian refugees, and demand that the UK does so. But not on the grounds of race. The voice of solidarity for Ukraine must come from the sympathy for the emotional terror and physical suffering it is undergoing, not from a racist mindset of feeling empathy towards one race, and not so much towards the other. Here are some links to support Ukraine:

Here are some links to support Palestine:

Here are some links to support Afghanistan:

Links to relevant sources:

Turning Cultures Kitsch

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Orientalist paintings: Selecting, combining, and constructing images from ‘the East’ Friday, February 4th

Since Edward Said coined the notion of Orientalism in 1978, the public’s perception of the ethnographic depiction of minorities seems to have been going through a long, gradual change. More and more, people today are aware of the still-existing problematic perspectives through which peoples of minority backgrounds are seen as ‘exotic’ or ‘primitive’ masses. Institutions in the UK and a number of Western scholars across various academic fields do show a progressive shift as well, suggesting the inclusion of decolonising methodologies and approaches in their disciplines. Most importantly, the term ‘orient’ is now seldom used to describe people from non-Western cultures, perhaps not only due to the political and ethical consciousness of the current society, but also a natural and necessary outcome of adapting to a new, global world where the gap between different cultures is narrower than in previous centuries. As societies progress and merge into a so-called ‘global village’, what was once clear examples of discrimination and racism diverge into much subtler connotations of superiority and hierarchy of certain cultures over others, and hints of glamorisation and fantasy that come from presumption and prejudice. This is not to argue that apparent evidence of physical oppression is no longer present—the tragic and enraging case of George Floyd, for example, proves that racism is 'still a thing’. Yet, whilst cases of obvious discrimination still do exist, oftentimes they appear rather cunningly, in a more complex and deceptive way. Contemporary society may not have a hard time acknowledging discrimination that appears as a physical violation, but it often struggles to recognise problems of fetishisation of ethnic minorities. Cultural appropriation, for instance, is an ambiguous area that has gotten much press recently. Its link to ethnic and racial discrimination could come across as a rather tricky idea at first, as in current days exchange of visual cultures across the globe is a common one. Nevertheless, still seen particularly frequently in fashion, cultural appropriation is at the core of the problem of Orientalism. Orientalist approach views the colonised—aka the ‘orients’—as primitive entities that lack intelligence, are indiscreet, and ultimately incapable of constructing a society with a high level of socio-political development, all in comparison to their Western, coloniser counterparts. What is most problematic is that it, at the same time, pinpoints selective elements of the ‘savages’ that are considered desirable, and hence worthwhile to be adopted in the coloniser’s society.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, c. 1879 (Photo: The Clark Art Institute)

One of the most well-known among Jean-Léon Gérôme’s paintings, The Snake Charmer (1879) shows how an Orientalist painting not only selects but also arbitrarily jumbles imagery from different cultures from different times, and creates an imaginative image of ‘the orients’. The curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, United States, Sarah Lees, points out that the visual elements in the painting do not at all present the reality of ‘the orient culture’. Although the work includes visual languages of the Ottoman Empire, and the blue tiles reference Iznik panels from Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, the snake-charming which is at the centre of the composition, ‘was not part of Ottoman culture, but [it] was practiced in ancient Egypt and continued to appear in that country during the nineteenth century’. Moreover, Lees writes that a study by Richard G. Zweifel at the American Museum of Natural History claims that the snake depicted in the painting ‘looks more like a South American boa constrictor than anything else’. When coming across works of Gérôme, which are categorised as paintings of French Orientalism, my first impression was that they seem kitsch. Half-despising the painting for what it is—a highly Western, discomforting fantasy of ‘the East’—I blamed my perception of ‘kitsch’ on Gérôme’s hyper-realistic style. It reminded me of the kind of paintings sold in tourist spots, works that aim to merely capture the pretty, attractive, and picturesque.

Claude Monet, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876 (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

However, looking at various Orientalist paintings including The Snake Charmer, I have come to realise that this might be the very problem of Orientalism and Orientalist art. Orientalism is problematic because it reduces peoples of minority ethnicities into a style, into an aesthetic that can be used and thrown away. It is problematic because such a ‘style’ is in the palm of non-minorities, or in the case of the past, in control of the colonisers, who were both physically and systematically oppressing the minorities. Hypocritically, those who discriminated the ethnic minorities—referring to them as primitive, and as 'the orients’—now become the ones who determine if their culture is appealing or not. It is important here that through Orientalism, these cultures are considered ‘obscene' when minorities themselves are involved, but ‘exotic’ and sexy when non-minorities acquire and appropriate from them. In both cases, the visual culture of ethnic minorities is either a demonstration of vulgarity or a symbol of titillating illusion. When approached with a colonialist mindset, there is never a strive to understand entirely a different context—the context of the minorities and their narratives—which is the reason why decolonisation in art is such a crucial discourse in contemporary society. Orientalism makes cultures kitsch. It disposes all the meanings that they hold—the social, political, historical contexts they were created in, and disregards them all. What is only interesting is the aesthetics, the pretty pictures only, and nothing more is wanted; it is detached from its original bearing ground and most importantly, from its peoples, its owners and creators. It is crucial to note that these cultures do have their own history and meaning; their culture itself is not kitsch. But Orientalism, by detaching the aesthetics from the culture, and not even showing a slight interest in grasping the differences between cultures from places that differ greatly—the best example is the umbrella term ‘orients’ itself, referring to peoples of the entirety of Africa and Asia—Orientalism turns these cultures kitsch. It takes what was once meaningful, important historical monuments of minority cultures across two vast continents, and appropriates them into 'a cool style'. Researching for this article, I have found Christie’s collections guide on Orientalist art. Referring to many Orientalist works including Gérôme’s as ‘quasi-historical document’, it does not focus on the problematic aspects of such artistic trends. Although only correct as ‘quasi’ historical documents of ethnic minorities’ cultures, Orientalist paintings do function as a valid historical document—they function as a testimony to a long history of appropriation, prejudice, and discrimination. Relevant to the perception of Orientalism as a notion involving historical evidence that speaks more about the colonisers rather than the ‘orients’, the pioneering writer of feminist art history, Linda Nochlin, throws an important question to the contemporary society in her article The Imaginary Orient (1983): 'the degree of realism (or the lack of it) in individual Orientalist images can hardly be discussed without some attempt to clarify whose reality we are talking about.’ Similarly, Said in his influential book Orientalism (1978) writes, ‘Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world.’ Links to relevant sources: https://aestheticapperceptions.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/nochlin_imaginary_orient.pdf https://www.sacredfootsteps.org/2021/04/10/the-problem-with-orientalist-art/ https://www.christies.com/features/orientalist-art-collecting-guide-8426-1.aspx?sc_lang=en https://media.clarkart.edu/1955.52_EuroCat.pdf

The reduced black identity

From Elle UK’s cover image to Lorna Simpson’s Wigs— Post-representation struggles Friday, January 21st

Now in the age of identity politics, the portrayal of race, ethnicity, and sexuality holds more political significance than ever before. From TV shows to commercial brands, inclusion and diversity are at the centre of the public’s attention, and individuals constantly review the political stance of the industries that they consume products from.

Elle UK Cover (Image: Ele UK)

However, this leads to a rather problematic situation. As visual representations become the determiner of the political correctness of media, the represented subjects are in a position of being reduced into a mere visual symbol for political ideas, into a tool that can be used to avoid being “cancelled”. In fact, images of minorities, whether those be of sexual minorities or ethnic minorities, are often seen as signs of “progression” in society. The cover image of Elle UK’s January 2021 issue, for instance, falls into a similar contemporary convention. Placing a married couple — two black women — kissing on the forefront of the magazine issue opening the new year, Elle UK titles it “ New Beginnings”, not to mention the flashy subtitles “New Idea”, “New Style”, “New Beauty”, and “New Faces” surrounding the two embracing women. (On the left is Aweng Chuol, a “South Sudanese supermodel who went from a refugee camp to billboards around the world”, and on the right, her wife Alexus.) Seeing two queer black women, who are married, on the cover of a publication that has an international reputation and a wide audience is most definitely a hopeful image. Yet at the same time, the excessive use of the word “new” comes across as a little depressing — would there be a near future where such an image is considered “old”, and “outdated”, boring and needing less of a solemn, “revolutionary” undertone? If yes, when could that be? So far, this sounds like a fruitless complaint coming from a bleak outlook on the future. But this very problem links to the American artist Lorna Simpson’s critique of the audiences’ oftentimes automatic, racial reading of blackness portrayed in her works.

Lorna Simpson

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960, Simpson is a versatile artist working across mediums including paintings, sculptures, photography, films, and so on, her conceptual photography works being the most known. Although the vast majority of her photographic works feature black bodies, and in other cases bodies of different ethnic minorities, the artist claims in an interview with Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, that she does not seek to bring in “a racialised reading” to her works. Thelma Golden is one of the first people, alongside the artist Glenn Ligon, to ever coin the term “post-blackness”, and the two women share a conversation on “representing the black body” in the modern age and its art scene. During the talk, Simpson and Golden speak about the perceptions of blackness in art, and Simpson especially stresses how black bodies in art are never seen as subjects of universalism, but only interpreted as archetypes of “the black identity”. “They're generically seen as black characters or as people of ethnic groups. Whatever the subject of my work, it will always first be categorised in those terms”, Simpson says. As such, black bodies and representations of ethnic minorities are seen and used only as “evidence” for inclusion, diversity, and ultimately a sense of progression, which is not always in line with the reality of contemporary society. When Aweng Chuol and her wife Alexus are reduced into the archetype of a queer black couple, and a monumental proof that the modelling and magazine industries have gone through change that demands “new beginnings”, the depiction of black bodies in Simpson’s works are at the same time received merely as a visual symbol for the black identity and conversations about race and discrimination. In fact, these are subjects that are not only anticipated in artworks that portray black bodies, but also those expected to be explored by black artists like Lorna Simpson herself. There is a bizarre requirement for minority artists; their works should be good, of course, but should also contribute politically, voicing their experience as minorities, which is an expectation non-minority artists are free from.

Lorna Simpson, Wigs

Lorna Simpson, Counting

Of course, representations do matter for a reason. Simpson’s works Wigs and Counting both depict black hair, a subject that has long been under oppression and seen with prejudice, and regrettably still is. As Kallol Datta — a clothing designer from Kolkata, inspired by clothing from North Africa and different parts of Asia including the hanbok, hijab, caftan, and so on — states, when visual matters that have been “used as a tool by the dominant majority to oppress and subjugate minorities” are presented by minorities themselves, a powerful image is often created, an image of subversion, and Wigs and Counting become an image of reclaiming the black hair. Yet, this is exactly what the artist herself criticises. Maybe my reading of Wigs and Counting as monuments of resistance and subversion of the power dynamic is not the claim that the artist intended to make. Perhaps the portrayal of black hair speaks for the ordinary, day-to-day experience and presence of black women. Lorna Simpson envisions a different future in which her works are not read as conversations of race, as she comments on Counting, “I have my own utopian sense that at a certain point people's relationship to this work will change, that it will not come to the forefront as ‘Oh, they're black!’”.