Our Researcher-in-Residence Nadia Buyse, shares her reflections on Ananya Rao-Middleton’s solo exhibition ‘Now You See Me’ Undoing Stereotypes About Women of Colour which was displayed at ONCA gallery between the 3rd-7th of July 2019.
Gallery etiquette is not relegated to your interpretation of validity or aesthetic value… or what do you do when you are inundated with personal opinions of the confrontational white male gallery patron?
1. Nod uninterestingly when he scoffs/comments at the artists statement
2. Hold your breath as they reach for their metaphoric sword and ask you if the work belongs to you
“no sir, I’m only staffing the gallery”
3. Pretend to not hear when they challenge the use of words like “race” and “ethnicity” because as they see it “we are all just people.”
4. Sigh loudly when they repeat the statement because they didn’t get the response they wanted from you for their ‘bold statement’ the first time they said it
5. Explain to them with the level of enthusiasm and excitement one shows for the most daunting and mundane tasks like washing dishes that their mincing of words and blanketed defensive responses to systematic racism is really boring but I will continue to engage if they wish to buy any art… perhaps you would like to purchase a print from the artist? Or how about this ‘DIY til I die’ felt badge? by Susanna Sews… oh no? Well then.. move along sir.
In Ananya Rao-Middleton’s first solo exhibition ‘Now You See Me’ color blocking, saturated landscapes and dinosaurs are some of the tactics used as a means to interrogate hegemonic objectification of women/femme identified people of color in the friendliest of possible ways. The work itself is ornamental, pleasing and accessible, yet the message it wants to portray is confrontational, powerful and assertive.
There are two distinct works in the exhibition: a four part watercolor series of various women in “fantastical backdrops alongside dinosaurs”; and a triptych of prints with texts about the danger of fetishizing women of color. While the first series originates from watercolor, the work displayed are giclee prints of the fantasy landscapes. The second series are digital prints using color-blocking and portraiture with texts which is reminiscent for me of works made by Viennese artist Decolonial Killjoy. The reproduction of images through various types of prints asserts the accessibility of these images…. you can own one for your home for fifteen quid.
The need for women artists (particularly woman/femme identifying artists of color) to contextualize bodily objectification and promote self representation in the art world has been a central concern arising in the later half of the 20th century. Since the beginnings of Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro’s FAP (Feminist art program) at Cal Arts in 1971 the conversation has been taken out of the context of academia only; it has become intersectional; inclusive in the way that feminist art is no longer just for the educated art world savvy white woman. So for Ananya to begin her artist statement with the sentence “Depictions of women of colour in art are often filtered through the white, male gaze” is not such a shocking statement. This is why I was taken aback by the reaction of this particular gallery patron.
Why was he so defensive? How can one person feel so threatened by such nice pictures? Because it isn’t the images that brought out this reaction but rather the use of words in the artist statement… while the WMGP (white male gallery patron) would want me to believe that the words he takes offence to are ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ I know the one word he is actually responding to… and that word is ‘white’. The disconnect between the constant need for racial codification of brown/ black people and the often harsh reaction to the use of the word “white” is endemic of the white supremacy mythology. White is ‘neutral’, ‘normal’; all which is not white should explain itself.
“In our society, Whiteness is a default standard; the background of the figure-ground analogy from which all other groups of color are compared, contrasted, and made visible.” (Sue, D. W. 2006, pg.15)
The idea that one’s whiteness is a codification, or a way in which to distinguish their body as object, can be a shocking experience when you have benefited from the neutrality of whiteness your whole life. The feelings of aggression arriving from this can be an important starting point sometimes for people to unpack structural racism.
While I appreciate Ananya’s work for being aesthetically beautiful, I think the real power in it is the statement juxtaposed with such accessible art. There is absolutely nothing offensive about the work; there is also nothing new or confrontational about the artist’s statement, except for that first sentence which I will repeat here again… “Depictions of women of colour in art are often filtered through the white, male gaze”… it’s text book feminist art history at this point. So to see such strong reaction from this WMPG just asserted for me the need for this work and other self representational feminist art from women/femme/non binary folks of color to take up space in our current world… and in your home for only fifteen quid a print.
“Decolonial Killjoy.” Decolonial Killjoy, www.decolonialkilljoy.com
Diangelo, R. (2018) White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. US: Beacon Press.
“Feminist Art Program.” MCA, mcachicago.org/Publications/Websites/West-By-Midwest/Research/Topics/Feminist-Art-Program.
Sue, D. W. (2006). The Invisible Whiteness of Being: Whiteness, White Supremacy, White Privilege, and Racism. In M. G. Constantine & D. W. Sue (Eds.), Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and educational settings (pp. 15-30). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Image Credit: Watercolour Woman Fishing by Ananya Rao-Middleton