The theme for this week: “Youthful Indiscretions”. Our memories of the mistakes of our youth are sharply influenced by how we recount them over time. This week, a 32 year old swimmer at the Olympics got the benefit of an extension of his youth. Ryan Lochte was labeled a “kid” who was just having fun after he maligned a country by using their vulnerabilities against them to fabricate a lie to cover up vandalism and otherwise abhorrent behavior. While he apologized in social media for his actions, it rang hollow for most of us. I don’t think he has grasped the extent of the damage his lies have caused Brazil and people of color. They exposed truisms about how privledge and bias work in our society. Sadly, Ryan Lochte gets the benefit of doubt by being perceived as a 32 year old kid, while a 12 year Tamir Rice gets gunned down for playing with a toy.
In recent weeks three notable women in the art world have given us a glimpse into their limited field of vision. Creative director Vanessa Beecroft posits that despite her European lineage, if she “believes” she is an African American male (her alter ego), that it does in fact, makes her one.
Then there’s Marina Abramović who likened Aborignial Australians to dinosaurs using pre-colonial anthropologic descriptions to substantiate her observations. I could almost hear the proverbial shovel hitting hard clay as she kept digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole. The artist was quick to point out that these innocent observations were plucked from a 1979 diary and do not reflect her current understanding of Aborigines. She was 32 at the time.
Cindy Sherman’s current retrospective at the Broad showcases her work as a photographic chameleon who transforms herself into characters in print. These images reflect society’s views on the portrayal of women in media and film over time and I have long admired her ability to fabricate vividly intricate stories through her photography. Recently, a series of photographs have come under fire in a Huffington Post article that resurrects a 2015 hashtag #cindygate created by Mhysa @E_SCRAATCH.
Sherman’s 1976 “Bus Riders Series” depicts numerous men and women she encountered on city bus rides. This early body of work included shots of Sherman sporting blackface against a simple white background with the artist acting out exaggerated caricatures of black women. These fetishized flat notions of blackness are in stark contrast to the deeply intricate narratives Sherman carefully crafts in her subsequent work. According to wall text at the Broad this work serves as a portal into her artistic process. I think it is a window into the artist’s bias.
Every one of these examples revolve around how bias shapes perception. If anything, this is a stark reminder that we do not navigate this world free from bias or perception. What’s frustrating is the art world’s reluctance to look deeper into the social constructs that develop these perceptions in the first place. Additionally, these recent examples by three art world luminaries also expose our over-reliance on using the innocence of youth as an excuse to dismiss and ignore the actions of the past. I recognize that we should look at the early work of artists just out of grad school as exploratory and should be taken with a grain of salt, but if we simply forgive and forget, do we ever learn?
Scholar artists like Deborah Willis use their work to explore these questions of perception, identity and image. I love the contemplative moment captured in a beauty salon that is a recognition of beauty that also challenges the viewer with the question, “what is it about me that frightens you?”. The image shot by Willis of artist Carrie Mae Weems looking at herself in the mirror brings us into this personal examination.
When you look at Weems’ series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, we see an exploration into the use of photography a tool to shape our perceptions of the black body; these perceptions continue to plague us to this day.
As black women we examine ourselves through the eyes of others, and constantly toggle between our own awareness and others’ perceptions of us. This is a process that white artists have the luxury of avoiding-it is one that I wish Sherman had explored when she was asked to comment on it for the Broad’s retrospective. The series was hidden for years until Sherman resurrected the work in a year 2000 reprint. In describing the work she dismisses it as youthful naiveté.
The Broad and their guest curator also missed an opportunity to shed a critical light on how this series fits into the balance of Sherman’s photographic work. A springboard into this dialog can be found in the show’s title.
“Imitation of Life”, a 1959 remake that was originally produced in the ’30’s is about a light skinned black girl who spends her youth denigrating and denying her identity as she passes for white. This entire movie deals with the child’s struggles when she sees herself in the mirror and ultimately buys into the larger society’s perceptions of European ideals. Her desperation to cling to the white gaze is a painful theme througout the film. The indiscretions of her youth carry forward into her adulthood and are only brought to light through tragedy.
This is why curators are vitally important. In this instance I think it is essential for the Broad to place this particular work in its proper social context for the viewer. The dialog should acknowledge the juxtaposition between the artist’s ignorance of blackface then and their understanding of it now. It is also important to recognize the painful legacy of the past and the indirect ways this imagery has permeated our culture throughout the years. By doing so we can illuminate a path forward to properly establish canon.