The 'racist chair' is not shocking but a cruel
reminder of the art world's views
Black women as hypersexualised, abused and ridiculed objects is not new. Shame
they are barely visible in their own right
o Hana Riaz
o The Guardian,Wednesday22 January 2014 12.42 GMT
Dasha Zhukova in Bjarne Melgaard's chair: 'For an interview devoid of context aboutthe art in itself,it speaks
volumes about which audiences are allowed to respond'
A photo of Roman Abramovich's partner, Dasha Zhukova, sitting on a
chair resembling a semi-nude bondaged black woman – published this
week on a Russian fashion site – added to a painful list of black
women's bodies being treated as expendable objects.Regardless ofthe
outrage that led to the photograph's removal, the barrage of images like
this one continues to demonstrate that pop culture, art and fashion are
not only riddled with racism, but dependenton it. Shocking? Far from it.
In the past year alone the internet has exploded with similar debates
about Miley Cyrus "twerking" with black women as props to her act,
andLily Allen using black women's bodies in a music video to prove a
"satirical" point about something or another. Like the gallery owner
Zhukova and the fashion site Buro 24/7,neither they nor their teams
considered what they were doing to be racist, sexist, or problematic to
What becomes particularly dangerous in these debates,however, is the
insistence that art has a distinct right to offend,regardless of who or why
it offends.The designerof the chair, the Norwegian artist Bjarne
Melgaard, is a prime example. According to Zhukova's spokesperson,in
reinterpreting works by Allen Jones,who used white women's bodies as
furniture, this chair provides a commentary on race and genderpolitics.
But the question to ask is: who is it designed to shock and disturb?
The photo of Zhukova provoked outrage among black women, who are
all too familiar with white women's historical complicityin the oppression
and injustices suffered by black women and men (as highlighted recently
in the award-winning film 12 Years a Slave ).
While these images are offensive,painful reminders of being subjected
to regular inhumanity, they aren't shocking to black women, who are
used to being portrayed as hypersexualised, abused and ridiculed
objects.There is a long colonial history that stretches from academia to
the everyday imagination in the form of cartoons, caricatures and even
human zoos. One of the best-known examples is the Hottentot Venus,
orSaartjie "Sarah" Baartman, a Khoi woman taken from the Eastern
Cape and paraded all over 19th century Europe. Displayed for scientific
examination and public entertainment, she was ultimately classified as
both negro and orangutan. More than 200 years later, Baartman's
skeleton and a cast of her body remained on display in a museum – until
the late 1970s.Her body offered a spectacle:one that read blackness,
and black womanhood as inhuman.
Melgaard pays poorlip service to these racist tropes, arguing that"
racism is a form of sexuality. It is all about sexual jealousy and sexual
threat". He might be attempting to confrontthe act of fetishism that is
often involved in the gendered racialisation of black bodies – the
eroticism and desire that underlies the disavowal involved in racism –
but he does so by using black women's bodies as collateral.
When Zhukova is photographed on the chair, to illustrate an interview
devoid of context about the "art" in itself, this speaks volumes about
which audiences are allowed to respond.In an art-for-art's-sake world,
artists are allowed to use real socio-politicalquestions as impetus for
their work, but have limited accountability. Those who are outraged and
offended at the portrayal (yet again) of black women's bodies – their
bodies – as the expendable backdrop or prop to some ill-conceived
artistic point are dismissedas either having misunderstood the "art", or
as being ungrateful to the artist for giving voice to their concerns.But
injustice and denigration cannot be reduced simply to a piece in a
HN Sociology/Features and Trends
1. Does art have the right (perhapsthe responsibility) tooffend?Reflectonyour response
from both a formallylegal and moral vantage point.
2. According to the author, why are black womenunlikelytobe shockedby the image of the
3. What caricatures of black women are constants in the Westernmedia?What recent
examplesdoesthe author pointto, and where do such ideasoriginate?
4. What doesthe author accuse the artist Bjarne Melgaard of paying ‘poor lipservice’to?
5. Can you think of any black female artists – contemporary or otherwise – who have
projecteda strong, self-definingidentityatodds with the ideas projectedby the Belgaard