Can art challenge racism?
Lucy Aylmer, Deputy Editor, discusses the extent to which racism has been eradicated in the art world.
Betye Saar an African-American artist, has consistently vocalised her views on reversing racist stereotypes. As an artist, she has used her privileged platform to argue against the dominant racist stereotypes exploited by brands like Aunt Jemima, the ready-made pancake mix. Saar’s most famous piece, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, depicts an emancipated Aunt Jemima who has a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other with a Black Power fist superimposed on the character cradling a white baby. It was radical then, and it still is now. Her artwork challenged the status quo and provoked an important conversation about the branding of Aunt Jemima. By making a mockery of the brand and highlighting its racist and sexist attributes, Aunt Jemima subsequently removed the mammy-like character from the product label and rightfully replaced it with a pile of pancakes. This was monumental for the Civil Rights movement with many attributing The Liberation of Aunt Jemima as the pivotal fulcrum that launched the Black Women’s Movement, according to Angela Davis, a Civil Rights activist. This is one example of the many ways that art has positively influenced social justice and been a force for good.
Kara Walker is another African-American artist that frequently explores subjects of race, gender, sexuality and violence within her work. Her pieces are bold and sobering and typically feature large-scale collaged black silhouettes against a startling white background. Walker’s artwork was recently exhibited at the Tate and showcased a 13-meter-high fountain, which initially looked like your typical Victorian public monument. On closer inspection, the reality was a lot more uncomfortable. The fountain depicted the troubling history of slavery and colonialism and was a poignant reminder of the human condition and capacity for cruelty. By drawing inspiration from history, Walker’s art serves as a stark reminder to learn the lessons of history and recognise its failures.
The fountain… was a poignant reminder of the human condition and capacity for cruelty
But what about the ways that art has embodied racism? During Paul Gaugin’s brief spell in Tahiti, he depicted a romantic image of a terra incognita that was completely detached from the European civilisation in which he had come from. Gaugin was prolific in this period, producing lively paintings of Tahitians in relaxed and informal settings. Most of these paintings feature young Tahitian women, many of whom are barely clothed and one of which he married. She was thirteen and he, forty-five. His romantic representation of Tahiti at the time can be described as voyeuristic and a product of the male gaze. His depictions of Tahitian women are heavily sexualised and reinforce the idea ‘othering’ through romanticised stereotypes of Tahitians from the perspective of a white European.
Visual culture is imbued with systemic racial undertones through prescribed classical ideals of beauty that are highly specific and in turn, exclusionary. Take Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus; here beauty translates to mean pale and fair-haired. These notions of beauty have been highly influential in shaping modern standards of beauty in glossy fashion magazines. Historically, covers of mainstream ‘glossys’ like Tatler or Vogue have poorly represented those of colour and difference. From scrolling through Tatler’s magazine archive, it is a real challenge to find women of colour that have made the front cover. In fact, in 2016 alone, the models that made the front cover were all white.
Historically , covers of mainstream ‘glossy’… have poorly represented those of colour and difference
Art and other forms of visual culture are double-edged swords when it comes to challenging or reinforcing racism. In some sense, art is a powerful weapon that can challenge racist stereotypes through reminding its viewers of sobering historical events or by probing important questions on stereotypes in consumerist culture. But equally, art should be recognised as a medium that has reinforced racism through romanticised stereotypes and upholding unattainable and exclusionary ideals of beauty. Art is not perfect, and viewers should be reminded of that.