Undiversifying Diversity

with Yuna Kim

Curated Representation at the 2021 Frieze Art Fair and London Film Festival

The past year of the pandemic emptied the streets and cut off social communication, yet somehow it was the loudest year of all. Pent-up opinions made themselves known, with various sectors of technology, social rights, and environmentalism dredging up awkwardly forgotten conversations of not just how we’re going to recover, but how we’re going to move forward. Amidst all this, the arts had a definitive place as a long-exclusive club of the haves that within the past few years was perhaps finally starting to consider the voices of the have-nots: in 2018 our very own Courtauld alumna Kaywin Feldman was appointed the first female director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; African American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was celebrated by Tiffany & Co in a post-pandemic campaign; and the past five recipients of the prestigious biennial Hugo Boss Prize have all been individuals of ethnic minorities. However, these are not quite accomplishments so much as they are a reality check that the arts have long been managed, curated, and awarded according to Western standards and institutions. At the LFF and the Frieze Fair, diversity itself seemed to be curated, with BIPOC representation present only within the genres that were comfortable to the local audience. Of course, this entire experience is that of a single person’s perspective, and should be at best, published, and at worst, politically correct. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.

Presentation bias made itself clear at both the London Film Festival and Frieze Art Fair through the curation of diversity itself: the only minority group that was put to the forefront was Black representation. The London Film Festival (LFF) hosted by the British Film Institute was meant to be an “international film festival” hosting a diverse range of titles, but the headliners consisted of mostly White productions with only King Richard being the most visible sprinkle of diversity—and it’s about tennis, which cannot help but make it seem as if it was shown due to being deemed ‘comfortable’ enough for a generally White audience. Admittedly, most of the lesser minority productions were not of the popular categories of blockbuster, sports, or action, but this serves to trigger the question of how this preference might have arisen from Western ideals and productions that have increasingly taken the global stage to create a preference of taste.

The LFF advertisement trailer, shown before every film screening during the festival, was a composite of the most visually arresting scenes from various films. This meant that the consumers were constantly made to remember stimulating action scenes and popular actors. As such, Spencer, French Dispatch, and Last Night in Soho sold out (Kristen Stewart, Frances McDorman, and Anya Taylor-Joy all showed up in the trailer), while it was difficult to even identify the film with the Asian actors at the trailer’s 0:10 second mark. It was only possible to find the lesser-known films of BIPOC representation when one was actively looking for them through the programs, most of which had been placed within the genres of “Strand,” “Experimenta,” and “Documentary”. These are not only typically unappealing labels, commonly stereotyped as strange sensory experiences, but most importantly, appeared in the last sections of the LFF booklet and webpage. Presentation bias was likely responsible for the largely non-BIPOC audience turnout of the screenings. Whether it was the cause or effect, is difficult to say.

The Frieze Art Fair was sadly, not much different. The fair seemed an exciting return to a post-pandemic art world, surely meant to be a display of the past year of social reflection, but most stalls continued to represent mostly galleries and dealers from the Western legacy. In Frieze Masters, I believe I only saw one stall showcasing Asian works in their own independent context (Japanese calligraphy), despite the markets for Korean and Chinese ceramics and court paintings being acknowledged fields of artistic study and popular niches of the Western market. Again, it seemed as if minority representation had been narrowed down to only one group.

As part of the gallery viewings held outside Regent’s Park, No. 9 Cork Street held a solo exhibition of African American artist Christopher Myers’ applique textile compositions, titled I Dare Not Appear. Son to author Walter Dean Myers, who wrote a book on slave girl and royal “goddaughter” Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Christopher Myers represents in his artworks a clear understanding of the ambiguity of the delineations between benefaction and prejudice. The exhibition was indeed visually arresting, but its location and presence couldn’t help but make it an outlier on Cork Street. He was not only the only African American artist represented there, but his was the only BIPOC solo exhibition. The Frieze sponsorship (No. 9 Cork Street is leased by Frieze) seemed like an attempt at cultural redemption. In one work, At Her Majesty’s Pleasure (2021), Bonetta sits at the foot of Queen Victoria, her buyer. Since the topic is relevant and familiar to the local audience, it might have served to make this artist a preferable choice for the Frieze lease space as opposed to other BIPOC artists.

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Christopher Myers, At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, 2021

Although it was slightly frustrating that ethnic minority representation might have been chosen based upon their relevance to the local European audience, the saving grace was that the works weren’t meant to be comfortable. England’s history of colonialism and White supremacy was thrust to the forefront, all in brilliant colour and masterful sewmanship. Most visitors stood around and faced inward into their social circles rather than outwards at the art. Some took pictures from outside the windows, and some wandered about ambiguously with wine in hand. Many even gave their attention to the display of excerpts from Walter Dean Myer’s book. And it is worth noticing that of the attendees, most were American. I watched in fascination as a couple came in, looked around, then promptly went across the street into a contemporary art gallery with mobiles and grey industrial sculptural works. It was as if the colour made them uncomfortable. Fitting to the title of the series, the artist would “dare not appear.” But at least he had been represented.