I read a plea somewhere the other day, for everyone to pay attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ll gladly comply.
Minorities in art is a tricky subject. Belonging to a minority myself, I am sure we are all hyper sensitive and I dare say, rightly so. There’s a plethora of images in which blacks, Jews, gays, Asians, Roma and Sinti, indigenous people – keep going – are portrayed as caricatures. It hurts. Not to the extent that we drop dead on the spot (others take care of that) but if you see yourself, your ancestors, your ‘landsleit’ depicted like a freak, it screws with your mind. Recent developments got me thinking, so I started digging in the history of art. It isn’t nessesarily a pretty sight. There are works that probably don’t mean any harm, like the portrait by Gerard Dou of a young black guy wearing a turban (1635). Or Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish Bride’ – so called presumably because it portrays Isaac and Rebecca (1665). As a child I couldn’t figure out what to think of the title, wondering why it would matter if she was Jewish or not and feeling uneasy. I still do. There’s the painting (1778, usually attributed to Johan Zoffany) of Dido Elizabeth Belle who was the illegitimate daughter of an officer in the British Navy and an African woman, perhaps a slave. Dido was brought to England and put in the care of her father’s uncle, a nobleman. These paintings are relatively kosher, I guess. I hope.
But things have gone from bad to worse. Slave trade became totally institutionalized from the 17th century, anti-semitism has been anchored in Christianity for literally thousands of years, and the result is that today our perception of discrimination has suffered inflation. How could we possibly NOT get infuriated when we see and hear about the wrongs in history, past and present? Just weeks ago, when there was a large BLM demonstration on Amsterdam’s Dam Square, our scary politician Geert Wilders – the one with the weird bleached hairdo – called it a “leftist” event. What? Does being against racism have a partizan side? Is it ‘leftist’ to look after your children? To love your parents? This is about humanity. And while I’m at it: it is totally, completely, utterly unforgiveable that one minority discriminates against another. We sure as hell should know better. Ok. Back to art history.
Jan Steen, 1663. Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten. A family portrait of a wealthy beer brewer, filled with typical 17th century luxuries. Including a slave. Also, there are the usual reminders of our mortality, and Jan Steen is in the picture, he always is. That’s the unnerving thing about this – in spite of the opulence, it is all so normal.
Chair from the 18th century, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Black figurines used as the chair’s legs. Disgusting.
François Auguste Biard, ca 1833. Slave trade, Sierra Leone. Biard traveled through Africa, and with his paintings he criticized the practices he had witnessed. The French slave trade was still legal then.
Slave trader’s business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. My stomach turns.
Between 1866 and 1870, US politics granted full voting rights to all (male) American citizens, including freed slaves. But the opposition against these rulings was so powerful, that in 1877 they were overturned under the so-called Jim Crow laws, named after a blackface character. It took till 1965 to re-install legislation that allowed general voting rights for Afro-Americans and there are many accounts of those laws still not always functioning properly. It goes to show that clocks are being turned back, all the time. Obama’s election becomes more and more of a miracle.
Gordon Parks, Ella Watson, 1942. Called ‘American Gothic’, in a referral to Grant Wood’s painting. Ms Watson was a cleaning lady at a governmental institute in DC. She had lost her husband in a freak shooting two days before their daughter was born. That same daughter died eighteen years later shortly after giving birth and Watson worked her butt off to raise her grandchildren. The oldest child was paralyzed. Gordon Parks carefully documented her life of hardship in close to a hundred photographs. Worth checking out.
Elliott Erwitt, Segregation Fountain. North Carolina, 1950. When Erwitt took this picture segregation was still legal and it would be for another 14 years. I was a small child in the early sixties. My mom and me were living in New York State, in a crummy apartment. Luckily a girl came over to help clean the place. She turned out to be just fourteen years old, and brought her newborn baby. She had just arrived from the Carolinas, having hitched a ride on a cattle truck. The baby needed a clean diaper and she put it on the floor. Of course my mom picked it up and put it on her bed. The girl was horrified, and cried out: “I can’t put my baby on no white man’s bed!” A few days later we were on a bus in NYC. A limping old lady, a black lady, boarded so I got up for her. The entire bus turned on us and we had to get off as soon as we could.
A sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, inspired by the Akan practice of portraying the dead. Please try to watch this incredibly meaningful video. It really hits home.
This is just a random couple of images, chosen solely for their impact. They are drops in the ocean, not a lot is going to change because of this post unfortunately. But I had to speak out. Let’s all continue to do so.