Look at this picture. The Lady and The Tramp. The Lady, a pristine, poised, and stylish young woman in a crisp white shirt. The Tramp, a wild headed, near naked bondage whore lying on her back, her knees up by her ears and her legs in the air. The lady is white. The lady is human. The tramp is black. The tramp is plastic. She is a chair, an object.
Because the image is of a black woman, with a white woman sitting on her, it is automatically jarring. One of my friends, a white woman, said that she thought the black woman image here suggested strength and beauty. I call that ‘misunderstanding on purpose’, or trying to patronise us into misunderstanding. But, we are not easily patronised. We do not misunderstand. It’s not the first time we’ve seen black women represented in degrading imagery; the sort of imagery that leads directly to misogyny, misogynoir, violence, harassment, sexual abuse and rape.
On what level are we seeing strength and beauty here? In what possible way does this image represent the power and glory of the black woman? It is demeaning. Does being demeaned strengthen us? I guess it does because it’s been happening for centuries and we keep on keeping on. As Ms Maya Angelou put it; “And Still I Rise”.
“Out of the huts of history’s shame, I rise. Up from a past that’s rooted in pain, I rise”.
What does the fact that a white woman is sitting on a black woman say? Someone said that the white woman, being human, is not part of the art. I beg to differ. She is the dot on the ‘i’ of the art.
We black women are on our own. I was surprised that the responses of friends to this piece; from everyone except black women was, “Get over it. It’s not important. There are more important things. You’re not victims”. But I think, if you’re a black woman, it is important. We’re not victims. We are stong; and we are sick and tired of the degradation. We will not get over it.
My response is very visceral. I am a black woman. This ‘art’ says to me that this artist’s view of black women is of menial objects; sexual clowns. It perpetuates the media’s lack of respect, regard, or consideration for black women. It is racist, antifeminist, insensitive and misogynistic. It says that the artist’s intention is degradation. I find it totally regressive, consummately chauvanistic, and indisputably, viciously abusive.
Bjarne Melgaard, a Norwegian artist who lives in New York, designed the chair. It was based on an earlier 1969 Pop Art piece by British artist Allen Jones. Jones’s original was supposedly a feminist statement, though I find it more indicative of aberrant fetishism.
‘Fantasising about women as furniture is known to psychologists as forniphilia. The radical feminist magazine Spare Rib suggested Jones must be terrified of women and have a ‘castration complex’.
Jones has designed many pieces of furniture, tables, hat stands, and chairs using women’s naked bodies as furniture. They have certainly raised a lot of feminist hackles. 1969’s women were enraged by Jones’s work. Their first response when the furniture was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art, in London was to hurl stink bombs and smoke bombs at it. Later, when the work was shown at The Tate Gallery some furious feminists threw paint stripper at it, melting the face of the sculpture.
Bjarne Melgaard, is said to have wanted to ‘re-toxify’ the original chair by adding the contentious element of race. He claims his chair to be feminist and a satirical presentation against racism. He uses the absurdity of being flagrantly racist and sexist as an anti-racist, anti-sexist statement. For those of us who are stopped in our tracks by the sexism and racism, the paradox doesn’t work. Using a demeaning black female image and adding Dasha Zukhova into the mix is inflammatory. The whole mortifying black female/white female; top/bottom juxtaposition in particular is incendiary. The artist cannot feign benevolence. We have not misunderstood.
The world is not short of images of black women exploited, brutalized, abused, degraded, starved, defiled, sexualized; their dignity violated, desecrated. What good does this chair add? Does it contribute to feminist doctrine? No! Does it in any way solve the oppression, slavery, objectification, whorification, and disrespect in art, fashion and other media that black women have suffered for hundreds of years or does it add to that list? Does it give answers? Does it make protest? In my view it does nothing positive. It is totally objectionable. It simply perpetuates the brutal denigration and assassination that the black female’s body, mind and spirit is interminably subjected to.
I have often said that there is little point in art that doesn’t illicit a strong response. I have never taken art, even vile pornographic images, personally. This one, however, hit me full square in the solar plexus. That’s because it immediately harps back to the narrative of black women throughout history. It calls to mind the humiliation of Sarah Baartman, The Hottentot Venus and those hideous hiphop videos where black women are caricatures of themselves with huge thighs, enormous butts, wearing shortie shorts and twerking. It is reactionary art. It’s another drop in the ocean of debasement.
Essence Magazine published the results of a survey on black women’s images in media. They reported, “After a 10-day cycle of recording the images they viewed on the Internet, television and other media, the black women in the Essence report — which was conducted by the research firm Cheskin/Added Value — described themselves as feeling saddened and disrespected, among other emotions”.
There have been many questionable pieces created over the years proclaiming political, social and feminist commentary. I am convinced that there is no plausible commentary that this chair offers. There is no discourse beyond the demeaning? I’m convinced this chair and picture that have us in such a furore are the means to an end, and the end has justified the means. It is a piece of deliberately conceived exploitation intended to place Dasha Zukhova at the centre of global notice. It has succeeded. She is now world famous for more than just being Roman Abromovich’s girlfriend. She is now famous as a ‘progressive’ gallery owner. She is now controversial. She will be celebrated. What woman in the world of art could ask for more?
I will never say that artist’s don’t have the right to offend. I’m offended. So what, right? Having said that, however, let me add for my personal edification, that I hold this piece of ‘art’ in absolute contempt.