Is Bjarne Melgaard’s chair racist?
Guest post from writer, activist and feminist Louise Pennington.
This is the question currently doing the rounds on social media and in countless columns and articles. There is only one answer to this question:
There really is no other way to answer this question, not if you have even a cursory knowledge of history and the legacy of misogyny, colonialism, colonisation and racism.
Bjarne Melgaard’s piece, which features the white editor-in-chief of [bi-annual art and fashion magazine] ‘Garage’, Dasha Zhukova, sitting fully clothed on the body of a Black mannequin, is being defended as “art”. Apparently, it was created as a criticism of gender and racism. Unfortunately, this is not how criticism of gender and racist tropes functions. Criticism requires more than replicating images which are common in mainstream pornography. Using the body of a woman to create an object is neither shocking nor thought-provoking art.
Melgaard’s piece is based on an earlier ‘chair’ by Allen Jones, which featured a white woman in bondage. This piece was itself misogynistic. ‘Art’ using the bodies of women as objects isn’t new; nor is it shocking. It is nothing more than the continual replication of patriarchal constructs of women as not-human. Women’s bodies have always been sites of objectification and sexualisation for centuries. Our bodies have continually been used to debase and dehumanise us.
Bjarne Melgaard’s chair does nothing to invert or question this construction. But, as Karen Ingala Smith makes clear:
“the objectification of white and black women is not the same. Black and white women are rarely treated the same in pornography, depictions of black women are rarely free of racial stereotypes.”
In using a Black mannequin as an object, Melgaard has reproduced racialised stereotypes of hyper-sexualised Black women as seen in pornography, advertising, music videos and the media. Racism is endemic in our culture. In many ways, though, pornography is the only industry in which racism is actively encouraged. This isn’t to suggest that racism doesn’t exist in other industries but that mainstream pornography creates and maintains racism in a way that other industries are legally prohibited from doing.
Without knowing anything about Melgaard, the image is distressing and shocking. Not because it questions our constructions of gender and racism but because it so clearly replicates them without question. What is even more distressing is the defence of Melgaard’s sculpture from within the art community. Leigh Silver at Complex Art and Design suggests the chair only became racist when a “Russian socialite sat on it”, a stance which simply ignores the history of racism. Melgaard, himself, says this:
“Race and sex are intertwined. I think racism is a form of sexuality. It is all about a sexual jealousy and a sexual threat.”
This statement ignores the reality of misogyny and racism in women’s lives. Reducing racism to sexuality ignores the Black women raped for the crime of being born Black. It ignores the babies who died on the slave plantations when their mothers were prevented from caring for them. It ignores the children sold into domestic and sexual slavery now because they are not seen as human. Suggesting race is a form of sexuality erases Black women from their own lives.
Gavin Brown, Melgaard’s New York gallerist, goes one step further and silences the Black women speaking out by suggesting they should focus on something else; a tactic all women know too well:
These Bjarne Melgaard sculptures, based on the Allen Jones originals, exist to destabilize and unhinge our hardened and crusty notions of race and sex and power. These sculptures, made by a self professed ‘homosexual’, expose the latent and residual self hatred in a culture where the inhuman and overpowering presence of violence and catastrophe is imminent. Our tragedy is so evident in our daily experience that Melgaard has nothing left to portray but society in its utter decay. We see this photograph to be extraordinary. We see this debate to be a distraction from the true challenges that face us. We applaud both the sitter and the seated. To fault the sitter, now in the age of the Anthropocene, in the midst of enormous and REAL obscenities that threaten our actual existence, reflects a civilization that is not dying but already dead. Turn your outrage upside down.
The irony of a white man silencing women criticises a racist, sexist sculpture which features a Black mannequin wearing a gag has gone unnoticed by Silver, Melgaard and Brown. A Black body in a sexualised position common in mainstream pornography isn’t questioning the treatment of Black women in our culture. It’s maintaining the same racialised sexism which harms Black women.
On a side note, referring to Dasha Zhukova as “Roman Abromovich’s girlfriend” then you aren’t criticising the misogyny properly. A woman is never a possession of a man, even when they are in a relationship with a billionaire. The image was part of a publicity article for Zhukova’s magazine Garage. She is a business woman who has participated in a photo shoot which is both racist and misogynistic. That should be the focus of the story, not Zhukova’s personal relationships. It is deeply ironic that in the rush to condemn this image as misogynistic, journalists are replicating the same construction of woman as object that they are claiming to challenge.
There is only one answer to the question: Is Bjarne Melgaard ‘s chair racist? And that is yes.