Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Dr. Lisa Tomlinson

GET UPDATES FROM Dr. Lisa Tomlinson

Don't Call Racist Art "Provocative"

Posted: 01/29/2014 11:33 am

"The responsibility of an artist representing an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible." - Toni Cade Bambara

Here we go again was my initial reaction to the recent image circulating on social media of a Russian socialite and Garage editor-in-chief Dasha Zhukova sitting on a bondage chair that was held up by a mannequin in the likeness of a black woman. This problematic image was published on Dr. Martin Luther King Day that is officially celebrated in the United States.

Somehow I knew many of the responses to this distasteful image were going to be in defense of artistic freedom, art reflecting society, or the trite argument about art serving to open up dialogue around social inequalities of oppressed groups.

I am not one to support censorship but where do we draw the line when white supremacy is used in a multi-layered way (in this case fashion) to reinforce social inequalities of women and racialized communities?

For those of us who know better, do we just sit silently and ignore this assault in the name of freedom of expression or do we use our agency to challenge cultural artists to think beyond the reproduction of racist (and sexist) ideologies and paternalistic expressions of power?

I am not certain about the extent to which Dasha Zhukova is aware of the offensiveness of the objectification of black women's bodies as represented in this demeaning photograph. This image blatantly projects racist messages that could be read as the celebration of white ideological and material dominance and superiority.

However, if the intention of art is to engage in political and social issues, shouldn't the artist(s) at least gain some insight of the subject he/she has chosen to represent or interrogate? Should the message of resistance being communicated to the public be unmistakably clear? I am partial to W.E.B. Du Bois's assertion about the role of progressive art in society, "All art is propaganda....I do not care a damn, for any art that is not used for propaganda."

Stereotypes of black people in the media and the fashion world are not new and have become all too common. Annually, especially during Halloween, we have to endure the Blackface minstrel phenomenon in the name of fun and entertainment. Many of the stereotypes are also gendered as black women's bodies are the target of exploitation and their characters are personified as Jezebels, hyper-sexual or exotic beings.

Expectedly, every time these provocative depictions are portrayed in popular spaces, commentaries, letters to the editor and the usual apologies are issued. Indigenous people are equally subjected to unacceptable images and misrepresentation of their culture. Given the longstanding presence of these problematic caricatures of the racialized, why do we need dialogue to be generated through hideous art that only replicates the same racist and sexist systems they are supposedly challenging?

Buro 24/7 team's and Dasha Zhukova's apology and removal of the advertisement came as no surprise. These two actors managed to clear the air by declaring that they "are against racism or gender inequality or anything that infringes upon anyone's rights.... The chair in the photo should only be seen as a piece of art which was created by British Pop-Artist Allen Jones, and not as any form of racial discrimination. In our eyes, everyone is equal. And we love everybody."

Both parties have only offered an explanation of what the chair actually represents (a piece of art). Therefore the "supposed" dialogue raised from this ad has become one-sided as the creators fail to speak directly to the use of a nude black mannequin in such a "provocative" way. Or are they now deliberately avoiding a conversation around the ugly reality of the symbolic abuse of black female bodies?

It is also not surprising that Dasha Zhukova's countryman's response to her advertisement came across as equally disturbing and failed to critically challenge white supremacy. Not for one second did I embrace this image of a black man seated on top of a white man as more defensible than the original one. Nor did I perceive his photo inspiring a revolutionary or transgressive change in our perceptions of white dominance and superiority.

The issue that comes to mind is whether reversing the roles of dominance should be taken as a true response to the oppression of marginalized groups. Are we supposed to feel less offended now that the table has been turned and white supremacy has been reconfigured to depict symbolic black male domination? Isn't the core of any anti-racist and anti-oppressive agenda to create equity for all?

Nude images of White female mannequins used in the late 1960s to advertise this chair is also not a consolation. We need to perhaps ask ourselves this pertinent question, have there been significant changes in patriarchal structures and misogynistic notions since the circulation of this image in the 1960s?

The fashion world, very much like the media, has used its power to dress up racism as art and has in many ways contributed to the perpetuation of white supremacy and patriarchy. If artists and consumers of art continue to disguise these images as progressive steps to opening up dialogue, freedom of speech and simply art, we will continue to fail to effectively challenge the real systems of oppression.

I tend to agree with Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) on the type of art that is meaningful to society:

Revolutionary art is art which inspires the people to fight against all forms of injustice, which is the only true purpose of revolutionary art. Reformist art teaches the people to accept injustice in essence, while fighting against its form. I think the artists must use the form of their art to confront all evils in the society.


Loading Slideshow...
  • Oprah is racially profiled in a Swiss store

    During an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Winfrey was asked if she had personally experienced racism. She responded with an anecdote about a clerk at a shop in Switzerland who had recently refused to show her an expensive bag, even though she repeated her request multiple times. "That one will cost too much, you won't be able to afford that," Winfrey claimed the clerk told her. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/14/oprah-swiss-racist-interview_n_3759144.html?utm_hp_ref=oprah" target="_blank">Read the full story, here.</a>

  • Paula Deen and the N-word

    The 66-year-old chef a<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/25/paula-deen-smithfield-endorsement-over-company-drops-deen-in-wake-of-racist-remarks_n_3495314.html" target="_blank">nd Food Network star admitted in a </a>deposition in a discrimination lawsuit that she used racial slurs in the past. Deen was asked under oath if she had ever used the N-word. "Yes, of course," Deen said, though she added, "It's been a very long time."

  • Racist tweet from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Yes, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/23/atlanta-journal-constitution-racist-tweet_n_4150222.html?utm_hp_ref=black-voices&ir=Black%20Voices" target="_blank">racist tweets will get you in trouble.</a> AJC posted this, deleted it, and had to apologize.

  • Jordan Davis shooter rants about killing 'thugs'

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/18/jordan-davis-shooter-michael-dunn_n_4123805.html" target="_blank">Michael Dunn, the Florida man charged with shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music, </a>is currently awaiting trial and maintaining that he acted in self-defense the night of the fatal confrontation. In several letters reportedly written from jail, and obtained by News4Jax, Dunn rants about killing "thugs" so "they take the hint and change their behavior," black-on-white crime and the liberal media.

  • Black college student claims he was arrested for buying designer belt

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/23/trayon-christian-lawsuit-barneys-new-york-nypd_n_4148490.html?utm_hp_ref=black-voices" target="_blank">Barneys New York and the New York Police Department have been slapped with a lawsuit by Trayon Christian</a>, a college student from Queens, who was arrested at the luxury department store in April. "His only crime was being a young black man,” Michael Palillo, Christian's attorney, told The New York Post. The Post reports that the 19-year-old was at the store buying a $350 Salvatore Ferragamo belt, but following the purchase, he was stopped by undercover officers that were allegedly called on by a Barneys sales clerk who believed the transaction was fraudulent.

  • Young woman hosts "African" themed 21st birthday, posts racist photos

    A young Australian woman<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/21/african-themed-21st-birthday_n_4138573.html?utm_hp_ref=tw" target="_blank"> hosted an "African" themed 21st birthday party</a>. Afterwards, she shared photos that show attendees In blackface and KKK costumes.

  • Black woman allegedly fired from "Hooters" due to her blonde highlights

    A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/22/farryn-johnson-fired-hooters-blond-highlights-_n_4142108.html?utm_hp_ref=black-voices" target="_blank">black woman was allegedly fired from her job because of her blonde highlights.</a> Farryn Johnson told Maryland's CBS News affiliate that she was let go from her job as a waitress at Hooters due to '"improper image" after the 25-year-old refused to remove blonde highlights from her dark brown hair. "They specifically said, 'Black women don't have blonde in their hair, so you need to take it out,'" Johnson told CBS.

  • Ohio School Apologizes After Attempting To Ban 'Afro-Puffs' And 'Twisted Braids'

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/25/ohio-school-afro-puff-horizon-science-academy_n_3498954.html" target="_blank">An Ohio charter school attempted to ban </a>"afro-puffs and small twisted braids."

  • Obama as Hitler Billboard

    WANE-TV<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/obama-hitler-billboard-indiana_n_4101322.html" target="_blank"> shared an image of the billboard, which is said to flash with the words "Impeach Obama."</a>

  • Another Black Shopper Accuses Barneys And NYPD Of Racism

    Kayla Phillips, a 21-year-old nursing student from Brooklyn, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/24/barneys-racism-kayla-phillips_n_4155176.html" target="_blank">told the Daily News</a> that she was stopped by police after purchasing a $2,500 Céline bag at the store on February 28. After buying the luxury item with the money from a tax return, the woman left the Madison Avenue store. Three blocks away, she says she was surrounded by four undercover police officers -- two white, one African American and one Asian -- at a nearby subway station.

  • Company Policy Requires Missouri Woman To Cut Her Dreadlocks To Keep Her Job

    Ashley Davis, a 24-year-old from St. Peters, Mo.,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/24/new-company-policy-forces-woman-to-cut-dreadlocks_n_4159369.html?utm_hp_ref=black-voices" target="_blank"> said a change in her company's policy now requires her to cut off her dreadlocks. </a> “I've only been there for two months, and they came up with a policy. I feel like it's degrading,” she said.

  • Macy's Gets Slapped With Racial Discrimination Lawsuit By Black Shopper

    The New York Post reports that actor Robert Brown, who's most known for his starring role opposite Sean Connery in the film “Finding Forrester," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/25/macys-racial-discrimination-lawsuit-black-shopper_n_4164823.html?utm_hp_ref=black-voices" target="_blank">has filled a civil suit for an unspecified sum against the luxury retail store and the New York Police Department</a>, citing that he was unlawfully searched by undercover police officers on June 8, 2013. The 29 year old, who is black, was stopped after making a purchase at the Sunglass Hut store located inside Macy's flagship location in New York's Herald Square

  • Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman Halloween Costumes

    A group costume<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/28/trayvon-zimmerman-halloween-costume_n_4170528.html" target="_blank"> features a man dressed as Martin</a>, wearing blackface and a blood-stained hoodie, and a man portraying Zimmerman, wearing a shirt that reads "Neighborhood Watch." In a photo uploaded to the Facebook account of Caitlin Cimeno, the woman in the picture, the man portraying Zimmerman has fashioned a gun out of his right hand and has pointed it at the man dressed as Martin.

  • Is this sign racist?

    An Arkansas town with a reportedly dark past rooted in racial discrimination is pushing back after an "anti-racist" billboard<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/07/harrison-arkansas-antiracist-code-word-antiwhite_n_4227769.html" target="_blank"> went up on a major roadway there last month.</a> Someone in Harrison, Ark., is paying $200 a month for an entire year to display this 12-by-24–foot sign with the message "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White."