Bjarne Melgaard who as described by art critic Roberta Smith, “never met a taboo he didn’t like breaking,” has a reputation to maintain as an aging enfant terrible . He has produced a ‘chair-as-art’ based on a similar one created in the 1960s by Allen Jones. The chair is a woman on her back with her thighs pulled up to her chest and her calves and feet sticking up in the air. The backs of her thighs make the seat. She is wearing black knickers, long gloves and boots. The difference is that Melgaard’s chair is a made to resemble a black woman and Jones’ is white.
Russian fashion designer and the editor-in-chief of new bi-annual art and fashion magazine GARAGE, Dasha Zhukova (note – it really isn’t acceptable to reduce a woman to that of girlfriend of a man, however rich and famous he happens to be) is a white woman who has been photographed smiling beatifically from the chair. The image is of a fully-clothed white woman sitting on top of a pornographied black woman. The photo-shoot accompanied an interview with on-line fashion website Buro 24/7 about the launch of Zhukova’s magazine and has sparked what has been referred to as a ‘racism row’. The editor of the Buro 24/7 Miroslava Duma and Zhukova herself have since apologised. Duma’s apology reads:
“Dear all, Buro 24/7 team and I personally would like to express our sincerest apology to anyone who we have offended and hurt. It was ABSOLUTELY not our intention. We are against racism or gender inequality or anything that infringes upon anyone’s rights. We love, respect and look up to people regardless of their race, gender or social status. The chair in the photo should only be seen as a piece of art which was created by British Pop-Artist Allen Jones, and not as any form of racial discrimination. In our eyes everyone is equal. And we love everybody.”
Zhukova is reported as saying: “This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an artwork intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics.” Art critic Jonathan Jones has waded into the furore and defended the piece arguing that the intention is the opposite of racist:
“in making this woman black he means to retoxify the art of Allen Jones, to offend people with an image long since accepted. It is to question power and representation. Are you offended by this black woman’s abuse? Then why is it OK for white women to be similarly humiliated in a respected pop art icon in the Tate collection? Offensiveness in art is often a way to satirise injustice.”
Firstly, yes, I am offended by Jones’ original piece. The sexual objectification of women is taken to the further depth of a literal objectification by turning us in to a piece of furniture. But whether art critic Jonathan Jones realises it or not, 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 Miroslava Duma’s world, everyone might be equal – though I would be interested to see a breakdown of the sex and race of contributors to her magazine – but in the real world they are not; and black women are doubly oppressed, through their race as well as their sex. The model of the objectified pornographied black woman is made more offensive when it is sat upon by a fully-clothed white woman.
There’s nothing inherently big or clever about breaking taboos, there’s nothing new about dressing –up porn as art or the art elite explaining to us plebs that we just don’t get it. Miroslava Duma and Dasha Zhukova are absurdly wealthy white women making Duma’s protestation that “everybody is equal’, at best ill-considered and uninformed. Bjarne Melgaard, Allen Jones and Jonathan Jones are white men. As people who have experienced neither racial nor sexual oppression, their defence of either is worthless. Pornography is the eroticisation of unequal power relations and art or not, pornography reinforces, not challenges inequality.