Racism comes in many shapes and forms that are particularly dangerous when passed on to the public as art.
Russian magazine Buro 24/7 ran a feature on Garage Magazine Editor-In-Chief Dasha Zhukova, showing her sitting casually on top of a half naked woman of color mannequin being used as a chair.
The photo used in the feature made waves around the internet as people reacted with anger and shock, wondering how the magazine could blatantly ignore the racist nature of the photograph. To make matters worse, the feature was posted on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The magazine responded by claiming they were not racist, loved everyone, and viewed the feature as displaying a work of art by Bjarne Melgaard inspired by pop artist and sculptor Allen Jones who created a ‘white woman’ chair in 1969.
Although I find both reprehensible, there is a difference between Jones’ sculpture and the photo used in the Buro 24/7 magazine.
For one, the Buro 24/7 magazine photo features Zhukova sitting on the chair as a statement. It demonstrates her obvious position of power, supremacy and privilege in relation to the black woman mannequin on the floor.
She is portrayed as lounging rather comfortably, appearing serene and unmoved by the fact that she is sitting on a chair suggestive of slavery.
The object’s very existence… is the real issue here. What is its intended context? Zhukova identifies it as “one of a series that reinterprets art historical works from artist Allen Jones as a commentary on gender and racial politics.” But is that really the message the chair — and its accompanying two tables and coat rack — sends? Or, put another way, does a work that’s intended to be a “statement” on something have an obligation to do more than just replicate the awful tropes and stereotypes it claims to comment on?
In this case, the answer seems like a clear “yes.” It’s nearly impossible to find any kind of insightful takeaway from Melgaard’s use of the body of a woman of color — especially considering the piece was made by a white male artist, has been shown by at least one rich, white male dealer and collector (Adam Lindemann), and bought by a rich, white woman collector, who ends up sitting on it to make a fashion statement.
To be frank, both the modern work of Bjarne Melgaard, the artist who created the ‘new’ chair, and the original chair by Allen Jones are clear reminders of the degrading portrayal of women in general by the advertising and fashion industries. Here is an example from an old ad:
Buro 24/7 cropped the photo
Due to pressure, the piece in Buro 24/7 now features a cropped image where the black woman mannequin is no longer fully visible. We can consider it a small victory, like winning a scrimmage in a much larger battle. There is a long way to go, but it is nice to see that there are people around the world who won’t be kept silent when there is a need to speak up.
A clever response
Although it’s more erotic than anything else, Alexander Kargaltsev, a Russian photographer and gay activist based in NYC, created his own response to the Buro 24/7 photo. It falls far short of the degrading nature of the original photo, but does push some boundaries and makes for a clever rebuttal to the oppressive crap coming from Russia these days.