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Performance Art or Protesting Act?


Performance Art or Protesting Act?

Johny ML


Blackening her face for 125 days was a new aesthetical mode that artist P.S. Jayamol adopted to create a social critique on the discriminated ‘living’ experiences of the Dalit communities. But it seems to have almost backfired on the face of the artist herself. The onus is now on Jayamol to defend her ‘creative social experiment’ which was lauded as a piece of performance art by local as well as international media.

Jayamol’s ‘performance art’ was almost a reaction toward the infamous ‘Rohit Vemula’ incident at the Hyderabad University. Taking ‘black complexion’ as a definitive marker of the Dalit identity, the artist had embarked on her ‘social experiment cum performance art’ by smearing her face and the exposed parts of hands and feet with removable black paint whenever she ventured out of her home/studio.

However, the argumentative Kerala intelligentsia, especially the Dalit intelligentsia, came out strongly against the artistic ‘co-optation’ of the Dalit issues by using her ‘upper caste’ body as a point of departure and made the artist accountable for such superficial ‘sabotage’ of a Dalit ‘agitating and theorising’ spaces. On the other hand, a major section of the artist community questioned Jayamol on the very idea of ‘performance art.’ Their contention was that the artist herself wasn’t clear about whether it was a piece of performance art or a social experiment. They also raised questions via social media regarding the aesthetics of ‘black’ and the politics of the performing body or that of the body in ‘performance.’

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Kerala is no longer the same. The issue of ‘black’ taken up by Jayamol could’ve been lapped up by the intelligentsia had it been done a decade before. Today, the Dalit intelligentsia doesn’t allow any such ‘integrationist,’ ‘patronising’ and ‘co-optation’ moves from anybody. For the spokespeople of the Dalit sections in Kerala, no discursive space that has exclusionary tactics or inclusive approach for the sake of democratic norms is acceptable. What they want today is ‘debate’; they no longer want to be spoken at or spoken to. The clear and precise political positions of the Dalit intellectuals have categorically made it clear to Jayamol that while they accept and appreciate her ‘artistic performance,’ the very idea of sabotaging the discursive space that they’ve been creating for so many decades now cannot be allowed for whatever reasons, including the aesthetical ones. The colour Black is not the only marker of a Dalit or a Dalit’s experience. Black is a general marker for Indians, though the upper castes don’t accept this until they face discrimination at the hands of the real White within the country or elsewhere. While Black being a universal derogatory marker of the evil, marking a Dalit or a Dalit experience with the colour black is almost a reductionist approach. According to the Dalit intelligentsia, blackness has transcended to various daily experiences of the Dalit even in their interactions with patronising integrationists.

It would be a reductionist argument if I say that only a Dalit has the right to speak about the Dalit experiences. However, empathy can’t be a replacement for the real experience. Jayamol’s contention regarding her performance is that it was her position/status as a woman that made her at par with the black skinned Dalit. Though we could argue that women are gendered Dalits, there is a Dalit discourse within the gender discourse itself. Feminisms all over the world have debated the multi-layered experiences of women in various social strata and have come to a conclusion that white feminism can’t speak for black feminism; similarly white upper class feminism can’t speak for the white labour class feminism. Even within Black communities such debates prevail. Jayamol has failed utterly while conceptualizing her performance art, as she hasn’t understood the nuances of Dalit and feminist discourses. Simplistic equations like Dalit= black and Dalit= woman made her almost a laughing stock within the cultural communities all over the world. However, I won’t say that Jayamol as an artist doesn’t have the right to ‘perform’ or ‘conduct’ social experiments on caste system in Kerala using a ‘color’ as a marker. While she has the right to do so, she should also be aware that the word ‘color’ or ‘colored’ itself is a marker of race or caste (in India’s case) and it isn’t just white against black, it is white against all the other colors. In Indian context, it is Brahminism against all other castes created by Brahminism itself.

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When art is treated as a ‘reaction,’ not really as ‘response’ or ‘assimilated experiential responses filtered through intelligence and feeling via adequate methods and materials,’ many Jayamols would happen in our society. Such reactionary artists, as they are driven by the urgency to ‘react’ rather than to respond intelligently, fail to understand the gravity of the situations. The failure that happened to Jayamol’s art project is because of her ‘reactionary’ approach. This performance was a ‘reaction’ to Vemula’s suicide. Her concerns were extended to the unfortunate incidents like ‘Ooraly’s arrest’ and the ‘rape and murder of Jisha.’ Reactionary artists often grab the opportunity of famous as well as infamous social happenings and attach their ‘art-ivism’ to such developments. That’s why Jayamol’s performance looks like a tacky social experiment meant for a ‘desired result’ masquerading as a piece of performance art process. The reactionary verve of the artist blinded her in seeing how artists like Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abromovic and so on used body as a performance tool much before the social experiments intend to shock and eke out a reaction from the ‘shocked’ or ‘offended’ or ‘don’t care’ audiences.

Jayamol isn’t alone. Reactionary art is the latest fad in Kerala where people are looking for publicity by attaching themselves to the latest social events that demand intellectual solidarity from different sections of the society. This is an outcome of the Kochi Muziris Biennale that has been promoting an art culture which is predominantly spectacular, and supporting capitalist art with a rebellious streak. While claiming its leaning toward political art, Kochi Muziris Biennale runs with the pray and hunts with the hunter.

Before I close this article, I would like to tell the artists in Kerala and elsewhere that art is political only up to the level of the political integrity of the artist himself or herself. Painting Mahatma Gandhi with a blackened tooth or talking about Dr. B. R. Ambedkar doesn’t make an artist political. Mere sloganeering and claiming of a political voice or space also doesn’t make an artist political. Even the party affiliation of the artists does not make them political. Picasso was a Communist Party card holder, but apart from the forced reading of ‘Guernica,’ we don’t identify Picasso as a communist. Reactionaries are never political. Whether they are visible or invisible, accepted or rejected, accommodated or thrown out, Dalit political discourses have been there for over a century now in India, and a reactionary artist just cannot snatch that space for whatever reasons. As a Dalit scholar and leader had put in one of the television debates, ‘Jayamol can wash the black colour by evening, but what about us who can’t wash it off and also have to hand it over to the successive generations like a pollutant?’

(Photos: Kalakakshi/Facebook & See-ming Lee ??? SML via Foter.com / CC BY-SA)

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ചായം പൂശിയ ഐക്യദാര്‍ഢ്യത്തിന്റെ ചെമ്പ് തെളിയുമ്പോള്‍

Why this Indian woman is using ‘blackface’ as solidarity

Here’s Why This Young Artist In Kerala Is Covering Herself In Black Paint For 100 Days

Paint Me Black


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    Johny ML

    Johny is a New Delhi-based art historian, critic, curator and writer.

     

 


 

Helpful White Lady Raises Awareness Of “Secluded Cultures” Through Magic Of Blackface


Helpful White Lady Raises Awareness Of “Secluded Cultures” Through Magic Of Blackface
ROBYN PENNACCHIA 


Meet Hungarian journalist Boglarka Balogh! Boglarka says that she usually travels the world writing about human rights issues–but recently, she got a great idea to try something different! She thought perhaps there wasn’t enough “awareness” of the various “secluded cultures” in various African nations, and decided to do her part to correct that.

Her idea? To transform herself into seven of these “stunning tribal beauties” with the help of a graphic designer, and then wrote an article about it on BoredPanda. An article titled–I shit you not–“I Morphed Myself Into Tribal Women To Raise Awareness Of Their Secluded Cultures.

Boglarka writes:

My inspiration came from my time spent in various African countries where I became fully aware of the issues regarding a number of endangered tribes, and the speed at which they are fading away. These stunning portraits show how beauty varies across the globe and prove that all of us are beautiful in a different way. They’re celebrating stunning tribal beauties at the brink of extinction.

Let me get this straight, Boglarka–in order to show how beautiful women of different ethnic backgrounds than you are, you are simply dressing up as them? This seems like it’s perhaps a little bit more about how beautiful you think you are.

How this raises awareness more than posting pictures of the actual women themselves and then writing about them, no one can really be sure. Are there actual people who would perhaps go “Gosh! I had no interest in these various cultures until a white lady Photoshopped some blackface on a selfie and dressed up as them!” Because I honestly can’t imagine how or why that would be. Although–given the fact that the article has a rating of 80, which I assume is good although I have no idea how their voting system works, and has been shared on Facebook over 4,000 times, I have to imagine they exist.

I also find it a tad suspicious that she is a journalist who travels the world writing about human rights and yet somehow she has absolutely no idea that blackface is an extremely offensive thing. I get that there are not all that many black people in Hungary, but come the hell on. Clearly, she is familiar with some non-Hungarian news sources, as she posted this thing on BoredPanda.

In light of the fact that there are so many people out there who appreciate this kind of thing–I feel I should let the world know that I am currently wearing a long sleeved black shirt and black leggings. Why? Because it’s what I put on this morning, but also because I want to raise awareness of mimes. Now you know what a mime is. You’re welcome. Feel free to send me many accolades, flowers, and candy.


Read More:

Blackface

Hungarian journalist slammed for ‘seven types of blackface’

I Documented Daily Lives Of African Tribes For Four Months

‘Blatant, unapologetic blackface’: Woman sparks furious backlash after editing her face onto photos of African tribeswomen – but she claims negative reaction is down to ‘ignorance’


 

INEQUITIES AMONG PHOTOJOURNALISTS PRODUCE A FAMILIAR IMAGE


Inequities Among Photojournalists Produce a Familiar Image

A lack of diversity among photojournalists runs the danger of perpetuating clichés and crippling stereotypes, but the industry is slowly starting to address the problem.

The Problem with Photojournalism and Africa


The Problem with Photojournalism and Africa

Why African photographers don’t get to tell African photo stories in Western media.

Images of Africa in Western media often conform to racist colonial-era stereotypes about the continent, writes Jayawardane [Al Jazeera]
Images of Africa in Western media often conform to racist colonial-era stereotypes about the continent, writes Jayawardane [Al Jazeera]
 | @Sugarintheplum

M Neelika Jayawardane is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego.


Whenever “Africa” is in the headline of mainstream US and European media sources, especially those that are highly regarded, I wince. I know the storyline is going to suffused by disappointment and resignation about Africa failing, once again.

While the rest of the world and its modern inhabitants are technologising and digitising, happily going about wearing jeans and T-shirts, there goes Africa, backwards into some apocalyptic, scarred past, wearing embarrassing tribal garb. 

Sometimes, these media outlets allow Africa to come to the present, but of course, in dubious ways: embedded in the flow of “Islamic” terror-narratives: Nigeria and Boko Haram, Libya and its violent insurgents, Somalia and its troublesome “Islamic fundamentalists” raiding Kenyan universities.

It’s as though the editorial board is shaking its collective head with an exasperated sigh, and showing us, with a lavish, full-colour photograph, exactly why they are frustrated with the entire continent.

Sometimes, though, I’m just confused. For instance, the influential New York Times recently published an article titled “Who Is Telling Africa’s Stories“, covering efforts to develop photojournalism in various African countries.

The writer, Whitney Richardson, a photo editor for the paper, provided some contradicting points: Happy news about the growing number of talented photographers coming out of photography training institutes and collectives based in countries with divergent histories and presents – Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa – but also that these photographers do not produce work that is “professional” enough for agencies to hire them.

‘Uncomfortable conversations’

Richardson offered some insight into continuing problems that locally based photographers face getting international news agencies’ attention. What emerges as a solution is the need for young photographers to get international exposure, where, according to acclaimed photographer Akintunde Akinleye, they may also “learn the ethical standards of the industry”. The takeaway: unless international news agencies based in North America and Europe such as the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse pick your work, you are a nobody.

Yet, it is these very agencies that contribute to problematic views that simplify Africa into a repetitive trope. Africa remains a monolithic space of violence and poverty uncomplicated by global politics and military action, because the images and narratives chosen by powerful news agencies and newspapers continue to speak to foundational myths that Europe (and white ex-colonists and plantation owners in America) manufactured about Africa, in order to better ease their conquest and exploitation of a regionally, politically and socially complex, dynamic continental shelf. 

If the construction of the African as child-like, or not quite human, who has little agency or intellect, aided the colonial project, today, the narrative continues to aid the construction of the European self as civilised, maintaining the African and Africa as the location of savagery, helplessness, and devastation. It also creates Europe as a desirable location that those who have no agency and have done little to better themselves attempt to infiltrate – much to Europe’s chagrin. 

Aida Muluneh, Ethiopian-born artist, documentary photographer, and the founder of Desta for Africa (DFA) – a creative consultancy that curates exhibitions and pursues cultural projects with local and international institutions – emphasises: “Photography continues to play a key role in how we are seen, not just as Africans, but as black people from every corner of the world. Stereotypes and prejudice are incited by images, and if it’s used, yet again, to undermine those of us who are truly doing the difficult work, then we need to have some uncomfortable conversations.

And when it comes to payment, there are further “uncomfortable” discrepancies that international agencies never reveal: “When we do get assignments, they want to pay us less because we are from the country; but for a foreign photographer, they will not blink to pay an arm and a leg,” adds Muluneh.

In Richardson’s piece, the prevailing view is that even though top photo agencies are looking for local photographers to “offset costs”, the Africans do not compare to western photographers.

Alice Gabriner, Time magazine’s international photo editor, expressed disappointment with African photographers (note, again, an entire continent’s photographers are lumped together), because they lack “completed bodies of work”.

But photography training institutions – producing photographers with “complete” bodies of work that have received international acclaim and awards – have mushroomed in the past 10 years. Muluneh’s own focus is on developing internal networks: to be “independent and to create our own platforms … and institutions … to be self-sustainable and to be able to compete in the international market.”

Besides Muluneh’s DFA, which also runs AddisFoto Festival, there is Market Photo Workshop in South Africa, The Nlele Institute in Nigeria, The Nest Collective in Kenya, among others.

Despite the existence of photographers and journalists from African localities, they are not the go-to people that agencies based in the geopolitical West seek out. The New York Times’ reporters-in-Africa, Nicholas Kristoff and Jeffrey Gettleman, or R W Johnson, the London Review of Book’s go-to fave on South Africa, spin a good Africa story, seemingly with little self-critique, and with little thought to consequences.

The ideologies behind the image narratives and stories in English language news sources are presented matter-of-factly, with little resistance from alternative media in the US and Europe; although they often contain deeply problematic perspectives of significant issues, they are trotted out on a regular basis, whenever there is a “crisis” involving Africa.

Conscious and unconscious tropes

If we ask a photojournalist or a photo editor how old narratives constructed in order to aid slavery, exploitation, and colonisation, as well as current efforts to extract resources, continue to inflect themselves into how we conceive of Africa and Africans today, in current photo spreads, we’d draw blank stares, or be the recipient of hostile, defensive responses. 

That lack of critique is partly owing to the fact that photo narratives reference prevailing problematic, and often racist, views; even those with expensive educations that taught them to be critical, those who hold influential photo-editing positions at the world’s most powerful news companies, still subscribe to these views, consciously or unconsciously.

For instance, only months before publishing “Who is Telling Africa’s Stories,” The New York Times published a photo essay with the troubling headline Stepping Over the Dead on a Migrant Boat” by Rick Gladstone and Aris Messinis. The story focused on African migrants who had crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe, but ended up dying in a capsizing boat. 

The photo essay appears, at first, to highlight the migrants’ plight. However, the way in which they are portrayed, along with the provocative headline, made their desperate attempts to reach safety appear callous and inhuman (because what civilised person would step over the dead?). 

The survivors who scrambled to get to safety are depicted as broken humans, at best, or those with unformed psyches that permit acts of barbarity that the Western “we” would never consider.

Photo-narratives such as “Stepping Over the Dead” bring up many familiar, and troubling, tropes common to the prevailing narratives about Africa. They teach a new generation of readers to view the African as an “other” to be pitied or feared. 

These arresting images – constructed mostly by flown-in photojournalists, with the help of their photo editors – grab our attention; the best draw the fundamentals of their aesthetic from European masters, referencing visual cliches that Western-educated audiences can identify and latch on to. They continue and reinforce colonial mythologies, fashioning the “us” of the geopolitical West as “civilised”, defining and distinguishing the enlightened European self from the dark, savage Africa.

OPINION: Africa doesn’t want any more Western band aids 

When the same newspaper prints a story about the struggle that African photographers face getting their work published, with little critique of their own involvement in presenting an insistently racist vision of Africa and Africans that simply masquerades as compassion, it’s easy to end up with a little schizophrenia.

How can African photographers hope to get work or recognition without reproducing expected stereotypes? Can they do so without the accompaniment of writing that exposes European or US governments’ interference and military presence – as in the case of Somalia, Mali, CAR, Djibouti, and Chad – or destabilisation efforts and military campaigns – as in the case of Libya?

Instead of leading the story with the dearth of Africa-based agencies, and offering the need to get recognition in North America and Europe – itself a problematic solution, available mostly to those who are already from middle and upper-class families who are well-connected enough to navigate visa and immigration regimes, not to mention galleries and art world sharks – why not offer better solutions?

Photographs have traditionally been regarded as “evidence”, or even as providers of indisputable “truth”. And there is little doubt that the present generation reads the world almost exclusively through images. In this age, where images play a significant role in how we read the world, photographs that accompany news stories have even more influence. 

But the practice of reading, in which we currently engage, is undergirded by consumer practices; it is carried out with little critical ability, and with little historical understanding about how and why readers’ image repertories, and their thought processes are influenced by material cultures – including photography – that aided violent, imperial histories.

But because photography is seen as a “truth-telling” medium that reveals without bias, audiences and photographers themselves are unaware of how the narratives they help create continue to be inflected with the same stories that enabled Europe’s construction of the African as a savage or helpless, the “other” needing the disciplinary forces of Western civilisation to tame and aid their unruly bodies and psyches into modernity.

When Muluneh was recently interviewed by a local radio station, she was asked how she was able to photograph “the good” things about Ethiopia, “as well as the bad”. Muluneh explained to her interviewer that the “bad is the easiest thing to document”. Perhaps that’s something The New York Times’ photographers need to hear in a critical skills workshop.


M Neelika Jayawardane is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). She was a senior editor and contributor to the online magazine, Africa is a Country, from 2010 to 2106. Her writing is featured in Transitions, Contemporary And, Art South Africa, Contemporary Practices: Visual Art from the Middle East, and Research in African Literatures. She writes about and collaborates with visual artists.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.