Art created by Westerners in or about colonised nations will always be racially problematic. There is an undeniable power dynamic that exists between artist and subject in these circumstances – no matter how pure or noble the intention, the work will in some way be a wee bit racist. There is no justification or hypothetical situation that can negate this, nothing to assuage the guilty consciences of those that enjoy these works. If we can accept then that these works are inherently racist, we must find a way to consume them that doesn’t perpetuate the ideas or circumstances that led to their creation. I would argue that there are levels of problematic that these works exist on, and I wish to discuss two that inhabit the “very” end of the probbo scale— in order to think about the way in which we talk about this kind of art I think it’s helpful to begin with the height of super racist shit and slowly work our way down (or indeed, up ). These are Spirit of Death Watching and a postcard of a Jeune Mauresque. If I had to choose two works of Western ‘art’ to use as kindling, it would be these.
For a very long time my favourite artist was Paul Gauguin. Aesthetically, at least, he still is— the bright swathes of colour and movement that preoccupy his paintings are after all immensely pleasing to the eye. I suppose the majority of my love for the works of Gauguin came from a lack of any meaningful representation of polynesian women in the first place. Gauguin’s aesthetic rendering of Tahiti was a welcome respite from the pallid paintings of landscapes and staunch portraiture that is so often seen in colonial representation of New Zealand, and certainly better than the photography of docile Hawaiian women smiling by palm trees. The works of Paul Gauguin were the first I encountered that seemingly treated Polynesian women as something other than a motif complementary to the landscape — women that smoked and swam and gossiped and fucked, women that were real and represented as such. Paul Gauguin was my favourite artist until very recently, when I found out that he raped the women he painted.
Is it then ethical to display the works of Paul Gauguin, knowing that he likely raped his subjects?
In the case of Spirit of The Dead Watching I would argue a hard no, or perhaps a reluctant yes with strong conditions. The work is similar in form to erotic female nudes by artists like Manet and Degas, whom Gauguin idealised. The model in Spirit of The Dead Watching was 14, her name Tehura. She was Christian. She is often called Paul Gauguin’s girlfriend, though it’s unlikely the relationship was consensual- Gaugin was 43 when he first sailed for Tahiti. In academic theory, the painting has two primary readings, neither being particularly savoury.
The first, that Gauguin gave when the work was sent back to Paris for sale, spins a tale of native superstition: Tehura is terrified of tupapaus, spirits of the dead that glow and illuminate the forest in the Tahitian night. The second, championed by art historian Nancy Mowell Mathews, counters that it was in fact Gauguin that Tehura was so frightened of. If we are to run with the second reading, the work becomes an uncomfortable reminder of Tehura’s reality — we are viewing the bare body of a rape victim, as painted by her rapist. So should we still be exhibiting it, given the nature of the conditions it was painted under?
The work formed part of Gauguin: Maker of Myth, a collaborative exhibition between the Tate Gallery in the UK and the National Gallery of Art in the US in the early half of 2011. This was an exhibition that took, to a degree, a postcolonial approach to the life and works of Paul Gauguin- focusing on the role of the artist as a myth maker, a man that mythologised people and places to suit his artistic agenda. A catalogue and short educational video series was released by the curators to accompany the exhibition.
The video series in particular is useful to understand a body of work that is intensely racially and socially problematic — framing Gauguin as someone who associated himself with European ideas of “the noble savage”, and Tahiti as a place that was already the victim of Western imperialism, far from the intoxicatingly exotic paradise that Gauguin portrayed. It acknowledges that Gauguin’s Tahiti was a fantasy, though it doesn’t go quite far enough— referring to Tehura as his mistress, only in the context of the aforementioned tupapaus, and neglecting to include the matter of her startlingly young age. The exhibition was a celebration of Gauguin — a critical one, but a celebration nonetheless — and this is where it fails. Gauguin may have been painting in a different era, but we are no longer in that era. With hindsight comes responsibility, and we must ensure that we do not re-victimize the subjects of Gauguin’s paintings in our efforts to memorialise him.
The postcards of the Jeune Mauresque (young Moorish girl) would in today’s terms fall into the classification of child pornography. They are highly erotic, explicit photographs of a girl who is barely in the realm of puberty. Posed for the photographer against a purposefully ‘eastern’ fabric, her breasts are exposed to the viewer. It forms a part of the canon of Orientalism, art that concerns itself with the East, or a western construction of it. Malek Alloula contends that postcards like these are destined to pass through the hands and gazes of many, without the thin protection of an envelope to veil it on its long journey from purchase, to postage, to its eventual arrival in Europe. In The Colonial Harem, Alloula explains that even once these works reached their destination it would continue to be shared,
“Solicited whenever the colony and its indiscreet charms are evoked.”
According to Alloula, the postcards of bare breasted Jeune Mauresques fall into three categories of breast exposure, the third being the most explicit, which Alloula names The Display. In The Display the breast is an ornament, the object in frame upon which the viewer is destined to look. In this representation there is little pretense that the photographs are anything more than erotic, let alone art, though they are now considered as such.
How should we think about these postcards that today would be illegal? The sense of unease for me lies in the repeated commodification and exposure of the subject, a minor. The minor in question is now long gone, yet it feels distinctly wrong that her image is being exhibited and consumed by new audiences. The broader social implications of the postcards contribute to this feeling of unease— they perpetuate a myth, a fictional ‘east’ that has never existed in reality. The hyper sexualisation of Middle Eastern and North African women is something that persists to this day, the postcards serving as an uncomfortable reminder of just how far we haven’t come.
And yet, I can’t say that I would in truth advocate for the suppression of either the postcards of a Jeune Mauresque or of Spirit of Death Watching — rather I would make the case for a heavily critical, public discussion around both. It is not enough for this discussion to occur solely in academia — it should enter the realm of public discourse so that any re-victimisation of the women and cultures portrayed can be avoided. Giving those without a background in art history the means to think critically about this kind of content would be a huge step forward for both the discipline and the public. It is not enough now, in the 21st century, to exhibit these works without also discussing the reality of their creation.
Ultimately I would argue that it is not only lazy to ignore the context of works such as those above, but in fact rather boring. What is the point of mindlessly praising something widely considered to be beautiful? We already know that the paintings of Gauguin are pretty, that erotic photographs from the past give us an insight into the sexualities of our forebears— this is old news. It is time we moved beyond shallow appreciation of art and toward a future where as a public we can consider these things critically— where we can talk shit about canonical artists. Lord knows they deserve it.