we have to confront this. the discomfort and inevitability of transracial art and experience

Fascinating. I woke up today to an image I found powerful and provocative—one of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei laying face down on a beach, evoking the tragic death of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/01/ai-weiwei-poses-as-drowned-syrian-infant-refugee-in-haunting-photo). And to my surprise, “No One” seems to mind.
I must take pause. It was only a few weeks ago that white Hungarian human rights lawyer and journalist Boglarka Balogh posed as African Tribeswomen in a set of digitally manipulated photographs in order to raise awareness of their secluded cultures (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/07/boglarka-balogh-seven-types-of-blackface). For this she was eviscerated on the killing room floor of traditional and social media.
One writer for Jezebel sneered that “the world weeps in gratitude for a dimwitted Hungarian woman who thought it prudent to plaster herself in seven different kinds of blackface” (http://jezebel.com/world-weeps-in-gratitude-for-woke-hungarian-who-did-7-t-1751448258). In stark contrast, when a grown Chinese man poses as a dead Syrian infant in order to bring attention to the plight of migrants, the Internet world, does, indeed, weep. “Powerful” and “haunting” is the rererereretweet.
So what is the fundamental difference between these two artistic interventions? In the case of Balogh, “we” all got to chuckle politely at her ignorance of political history, social theory, and, under our breaths, at her poor English and inability to articulate an effective rebuttal before retreating. Another chance to pat ourselves on the back for being less racist than she, or at least versed on what racism “is” in order to navigate the difference.
This intellectual superiority allowed her critics to ignore her apparently failed intention to raise “issues regarding a number of endangered tribes” which she names and details “and the speed at which they are fading away”.
Perhaps an important distinction was missed. Balogh was not trying to represent the plight of Africans as a whole or the African diaspora. In fact her work called attention to the difference between peoples and the specific risk these people face. These tribeswomen’s Blackness is not the same as any and every other Blackness—one could argue they are being swallowed up by Blackness. And yet critics may have fortified an essentialist notion of all of African or African diaspora experience. Would it be Blackface if Balogh were Black? Balogh’s work may make us uncomfortable, but this, too, is deeply problematic.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall put it best when he said that race is a floating signifier; there is no scientific evidence of Race, nor have scientists ever been able to find the Black gene, nor do we share the same definitions of Blackness or Whiteness cross culturally. How White or Black is a Hungarian migrant in the UK? How White or Black is a Chinese migrant in Italy? How White or Black is an African American migrant in Nigeria? And whom, how and why did they migrate?–we should appropriately ask.
In the case of a dead Syrian infant, it might be said that Ai Weiwei is portraying an experience of Blackness; one of abandonment and exploitation. This representation places us— those of us who witness Weiwei’s work in galleries, in our international papers, online—in the position of Whiteness; of exploiters, who stare on, unable to do anything, unable to change our own nation’s laws to allow for free migration.
The comparative case of Weiwei and Balogh could bring us to think critically about Whiteness and Blackness and the societal construction of race, and bring us to a more nuanced discussion about how our identities are and will be shaped in the coming centuries. Balogh and Weiwei’s creations belong to a nascent artistic and lived genre we could call “transracialism”, in which artists and non artists alike play with a racial identity that society does not normally assign to them.
It could also invite us to question the way society constructs notions of legitimacy. In one case, transracialist art is celebrated, while in another the artist is castigated and humiliated, in part due to the cultural capital of the artists themselves: On the one hand we have a famous, arguably non-White artist. On the other, an unknown, arguably White amateur with less linguistic tools than the Art World expects. By discouraging each other and shaming each other away from dialogue, we substantiate constructed categories—ie, what it is to be Black or to be White, to be Man or the be Woman and who has the right to play the authenticity card.
But this imbalance is also due to who gets the chance to comment and express offense. What I miss most often within social media or the Art World are the voices of those who are specifically represented; of Syrian refugees represented by famous artists, or the African tribeswomen represented by “dimwitted” ones. Moreover rude epitaphs don’t help us arrive at solutions to the toughest problems—ie, how to get along with each other and de-escalate violence, address structural violence that contributes to vanishing peoples and languages, or how we can express constructively our hurt and offense at what others say and do.
Get ready for it; in the next years transracialism will be increasingly explored both within and outside of the art wold. The question is, could it bring us together, and, as Balogh said in her imperfect English after taking down her initial post, help us to “keep calm and love every human”?

Comments are closed.