The Thin Line Between Art and Explotation

by Latoya Peterson

I watched yesterday’s thread with great interest – and not just because the racists came out to play behind the scenes. When I first got the tip on Gisele’s shoot, I pulled up the images in the company of my host in Houston. As we all looked at the images pop up, three words fell out of our mouths and into the air.

From our host: “Beautiful.”

From my boyfriend: “Striking.”

From me: “Mmmm.”

Some days, I think I’ve been doing this a bit too long. Where as a long time ago, I could debate the novelty of such themes, the artist’s intent, what have you, now I generally yawn. I get tips showing images like this all the time. There are a lot of photographers who happened upon the idea of using skin color as contrast. Hell, Johnson and Johnson did it in a lotion ad late last year. Yes, we know, dark skin is a contrast. So are many other things. Like using racism to provide lazy characterization and fill in personality in novels and screenplays, the contrast thing has been done, will be done, will continue to be done. I’m bored.

But my companions were not. And that is because art is something created by one person and consumed by others, with all kinds of experiences and ideas projected onto the resulting work. I, seeing this kind of study in racial contrast often, didn’t see anything too special about the photos. They, probably seeing the image as the artist intended, were caught up in the contrast and the arresting forwardness of the images. It is this dynamic – the idea that the viewer informs the interpretation – that makes critiquing and presenting art on Racialicious so difficult. You never really know what is informing the viewer and how they will interact with the piece. In writing the piece, I intentionally left my ideas about it vague, presenting just the images, a counter image, and the first comment on the thread.

So with that, imagine my reaction when clicking on my twitter feed and having reader Julian Obubo hit me with this image:

And I thought to myself, Oh, this is about to be some shit, isn’t it?

Over on Kanye West’s blog, he gives a shout out to artist Vanesssa Beecroft, who he has a collaborative relationship with. He copies and pastes more photos and the press release, which states:

The show is composed of two parts: a new performance ‘VB65′ created especially for this exhibition at the milan contemporary art gallery PAC and 4 video projections of performances and videos ‘VB48′, ‘VB54′, ‘VB61′ and ‘VB62′. ‘VB65′ is a performance of 20 african immigrants, only men, seated at a 12m long table, dining as if at a last supper, dressed formally, a few did not wear shoes, but all were wearing black dinner jackets, suits, eating chicken, brown bread, drinking water, without platters or silverware, in front of an audience of invited guests. the 20 hosts of the supper sat silently eating during the opening (for 3 hours).

known for her performances during which numerous models enact the ritual of being and appearing, vanessa beecroft (born in genoa in 1969) is one of the most internationally recognized italian artists. she lives and works in los angeles, usa.

everything in vanessa beecroft’s life revolves around food. beecroft has struggled to control an obsession with food since the age of 12. the spectre of anorexia haunted her teens and twenties, beecroft suffers from what psychiatrists call ‘exercise bulimia’, a compulsive need to burn off unwanted calories using excessive exercise. she is practising ashtanga yoga, ‘without it’,she says she ‘would go crazy’. vanessa beecroft announced herself boldly to the art world in 1993, after a professor at the accademia di belle arti di brera in milan, where she studied from 1988 to 1993, invited her to participate in a group show at the city’s inga pin gallery. she showed a performance of 30 girls, consisting of fellow brera students or girls found on the streets of milan, who were
instructed to move around the space, dressed in beecroft’s own clothes. many of the girls were chosen for their resemblance to beecroft, and were themselves struggling with eating disorders. this first performance set the blueprint for beecroft’s future as a conceptual artist. since then, she has staged many more performances around the world (all titled VB01, VB02, VB25, VB45, etc), and each was more elaborate than its predecessor.

And more photos follow of the exhibit, like this one:

It is worth noting that some of the participant’s faces were darkened for the performance. Over on Kanye’s blog, a heated debate ensued in the comments section as to whether or not this was racist. One of the more vocal commenters sneered that people need to wake up and understand art. But art is not created in a vacuum, and many artists operate within the frames set by our sexist, racist, and colonialist society. Whether they realize it our not, their perception has been influenced by those ideas. Puzzled by Vanessa Beecroft, I decided to do a little more research on her work.

Beecroft’s original pieces revolved around food and young (mostly white) womanhood. As Clifford Elgin writes in Thoughts on Art: Vanessa Beecroft’s VB-35 (With pre and post histories):


The crux of this essay will revolve around images from Beecroft’s VB-35, Guggenheim installation/performance. Twenty female models stood in the center of the Guggenheim rotunda for three hours. All of them wore high heels and nudity was optional. If a subject (female model) were modest, a Gucci bikini was provided. Difficult to see in the photograph is a thick layer of body paint, which serves to lessen embarrassment caused by the near or full nakedness of the subjects. Three rules governed the performance:

1. Do not move
2. Do not talk
3. You are encouraged to stare back at the audience [...]


The second Beecroft rule (do not move) is an almost impossible request, which the artist herself undermines by requiring the use of her awkward Gucci shoes. This rule was loosely applied in that the models were asked not to leave their positions in the delineated space. They were allowed to lean back and forth or even sit down if need be due to the high heels which made things difficult for the models to sustain their own body weight over extended periods of time. Not seen here in the photograph is a camera crew filming from every angle. Some of the most startling imagery captured was that of the figure being caught in unrest. While viewing footage of the event, it became clear that the artists behind the camera were after abstract sensibilities. Body parts swaying gently back and forth in the foreground bracketed teetering figures slightly out of focus. The over all impression was that of viewing a living abstract Motherwell. Viewers watching in person, and to those participating via video encounter a writhing mass of flesh, fraught with discomfort. Two critics who delved into the evolution and constant shifting of the piece as the models tired remarked upon this aspect. “Her work is something of a planned obsolescence. The artist dictates initial conditions in order to create the formation image, but subsequently she allows the work to crumble and decay.2″, “The picture Beecroft sets in motion is one of disintegration. The girls grow tired over the course of the pose, which lasts several hours. The picture begins to droop, fidget, sag, and collapse. The perfect picture quite literally falls apart.3″ These are two interesting quotes in that they add to the context of Beecroft’s work while describing the temporality of her work. [...]


Beecroft describes herself as a post feminist. As a male looking into the world of feminist culture and trying to interpret this statement made by a woman that I do not know, I would hazard that she was using John Barth’s model of post modernism outlined in the essay “Literature of Replenishment”. Beecroft is not saying that she is shirking off the hard won position she gained by merely being born a generation after the initial feminist movement. Instead Beecroft is taking from the feminists and adding a second introspective level to the struggle. To summarize Barth’s argument, he used the example of Dickens as being pre-modernism, Mr. Joyce as being modern, and Delillo being a hyper real post modernist writer. Delillo (Beecroft) did not reject Joyce (feminism) but instead he looked back and used Joyce to enhance the writing of the pre-modernists. We now have a truly feminine art culture which is able to feed off of its past and exist separately from that of the previously masculine world. “Women giving their bodies back to themselves isn’t a big issue, if it’s an issue at all4.” Taking this into account, we the viewers are asked to view this artwork not as a pornographic production, but rather as a creation wrought by a woman grappling with what it means to be a female in today’s culture. As well, the use of nude females is not in Beecroft’s opinion an important factor in the work because of the struggles the previous generation of female artists underwent to negate this issue. Twenty perfect women lined up as products, wearing Gucci, slathered in body paint that is slowly melting away while they become frazzled tired and unkempt could perhaps instead be read as a scathing indictment towards our capitalistic culture. Over the course of an evening the group of women that are trotted out as “nubile machines5″ become individual and real. We are allowed to witness the artificiality of what our culture aspires toward.

The author continues to struggle with the complexity of Beecroft’s imagery throughout the piece, ultimately concluding that her work is so layered and so rich with intent, it is hard to get a feel for her without looking at her full body of work. (To read more about Beecroft’s influences in terms of feminism and food, go here.) However, further research on Beecroft shows a departure from the post-feminist aesthetic that informed her previous work into something else entirely.

Prior to the exhibit Kayne referenced on his blog, Vanessa Beecroft was engaged in another gig. A documentary was made on Beecroft called The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins showing some of issues involved with her newer project. In a review for CBC News, Katrina Onstad writes:

The photograph is clearly meant to be a shove and a slap, and it is: A white woman in an angelic white dress, burnt along the bottom like a baked doily, nurses two black babies, one on each breast. In this portrait, the deified figures are not the babies, but the Madonna front and centre: Vanessa Beecroft, a 39-year-old Italian-British artist.

For her, the image is a piece of reverse colonialism, an attempt to rewrite the history of wet nurses of colour enlisted in the service of white Western women. But as with all of Beecroft’s work, the photograph is also painfully personal. In 2006, she travelled to Sudan and on her first day there met Madit and Mongor Akot at an orphanage. The baby boys needed to be nursed, and Beecroft stepped in, able to do so because she was still breastfeeding her youngest son in New York. Whether she bonded intensely with the children, or had a selfish urge to live out the Angelina Jolie fantasy of salvation through adoption — perhaps a combination of both — Beecroft began efforts to formally adopt the boys.

But Sudan has no laws around adoption and, indeed, no cultural concept of it. In this way, the now-famous portrait that resulted, like the story behind it, is not merely an artistic provocation, but an outrage to many, an extension of colonialism rather than a refutation.

Onstad details Beecroft’s chance meeting with filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly who ended up recording Beecroft for over sixteen months. Brettkelly had her own perspective on Beecroft’s work:

Brettkelly only figured out she was dealing with a renowned conceptual artist when she joined Beecroft at the Venice Biennale in 2007 for a performance called VB61: Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?. There, Beecroft delivered a variation on her signature installations, in which groups of women stand or sit without moving for hours at a time. The direct feminism of those works — Beecroft, who has had a lifelong eating disorder, is in constant conversation with the female body as object — absorbed new meaning in Venice. The documentary shows Beecroft arranging 30 African women across a white floor, trailing red paint across their still bodies.

“I was incredibly moved,” Brettkelly says. “The stuff in L.A. with white models hadn’t done much for me, but this I understood.”

However, the finished film provided a different view of Beecroft. New York Magazine’s Vulture blog notes:

The documentary explores Beecroft’s experiment in Sudan, in which she attempts to adopt two Sudanese orphans and use them as subjects in her work. Wise to theory, Beecroft says her adoption will be “not just fetishization of the blacks. It will be a beginning of a relationship with that country.” The film documents the significant gap between Beecroft’s theory and her actions.

Upon her arrival in the Sudan, Beecroft hurries to set up a photo shoot, hiding the cameras from the orphanage’s sisters, calling the babies “these poor creatures.” Which baby should she photograph? “Either one or the other,” she says, “it doesn’t matter.”

Repeatedly, Beecroft claims that she “loves this culture” — but, in the film’s most disturbing scene, sisters from the orphanage try to stop her from stripping the children nude inside their abbey for an elaborate photo shoot. Beecroft refuses, complains, starts shooting again, and eventually loses a physical confrontation with one of the sisters, who takes the children away from her, furious that Beecroft is stripping children naked inside a church.

The CBC piece delves deeper into that particular scene, from Brettkelly’s perspective:

Brettkelly says she didn’t alter the film based on Beecroft’s complaints, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a vanity project. The doc is sympathetic to Beecroft, who struggles with depression, but it isn’t always flattering. In one particularly difficult scene, Beecroft is shooting the babies in a church in Sudan when a few local women pound the door, outraged that the children are being photographed naked, and accusing Beecroft’s translator of corroborating with “the whites.”

Brettkelly recalls that as the screaming escalated, she considered putting down the camera and getting involved. “My camera man was beside me and I said, ‘Oh God, what do I do? What do I do? Am I going to step in here?’ But really quickly I could see these women didn’t need some white woman to step in. They knew what was right and wrong in their world, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m fine right here, behind the camera.’ ”

Anyone who wants to write off Beecroft can zone in on her casual white privilege, especially when she bars the door to the church and mutters, “Christ, these people.” But Brettkelly’s film also constantly reminds the viewer that Beecroft is a fiercely driven artist, doing whatever it takes to produce the work she genuinely thinks will change the world. Subtly, the doc asks whether male and female artists are scrutinized or judged in the same way. Is it too simple to dismiss a fashionable, beautiful woman preoccupied by food and the female body — the former considered trivial and the latter an obsession historically left to male artists?

All of this, taken together, provides a very complicated picture of an artist. On one hand, Beecroft seems to have hit upon something deep with her work on women and relationships to the body. But that work was more abstract, less direct than her current works which seem designed to critique certain global issues. However, her pechant for darkening the features of the models used in her work, the casual disregard for the environment she is in, and even her positioning as a white woman who wants to make the world aware of these issues plays into longstanding issues with neo-colonialism and racism.

The majority of my readers are intelligent enough to understand that there may be two ideas involved when discussing Beecroft’s work:

1. That she is an artist, interpreting the world as she sees it.

AND

2. That artists can be influenced by racism and colonialism, even as they are trying to make a statement about one of these topics.

The end of the CBC News article sums up the situation by displaying the audience reactions to the film at Sundance:

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins continues to divide audiences. Brettkelly describes a screening where a man stood up and said, “I find this appalling. It’s disgusting.” Another woman in the audience cut him off. “She said: ‘I completely identify with her. She thinks differently than us. She’s an artist. She’s showing us a way into issues we don’t talk about.’ There aren’t many people who feel lightly about Vanessa. It’s either love or hate.”

Readers, what are your thoughts?