Comment: Was the 'black mannequin chair' racist?

Dasha Zhukova's picture for Buro 24/7 has attracted swift condemnation, after some accused the Russian magazine of being racist in online posts.

Art plays a vital role in conversations about oppression. But the way we approach these aesthetic experiences treads a fine line between drawing attention to, and perpetuating, racism.

Last week, Russian fashion designer and editor-in-chief of Garage magazine Dasha Zhukova apologised after a photo of her sitting on a chair made from the mannequin of a tied-up, half-naked black woman was published by the Russian fashion website, Buro 24/7. The picture attracted condemnation and accusations of racism, particularly as the photograph was uploaded on America’s Martin Luther King Day (though, as Vanessa Murray points out on the Vine, given the publication and the subject are Russian, this is more likely to be of a case of unfortunate timing rather than deliberate insensitivity).

The chair, by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, is a reinterpretation of the 1969 piece ‘Chair’ by artist Allen Jones, part of a series of three scultptures, which depicts a white woman in a similar pose. Both Jones’ and Melgaard’s works have been interpreted as commentary on the overly sexualised and objectified bodies of women.

In response to the controversy, the artist released a statement stating that the piece is designed “to destabilize and unhinge our hardened and crusty notions of race and sex and power.” Zhukova used her apology to defend Melgaard’s piece: "This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics. I utterly abhor racism, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by this image."

Commenting on the outcry, Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones rejected claims that the artwork is racist: “Offensiveness in art is often a way to satirise injustice. But this provocative sculpture has been naively injected into a popular culture whose default mode, in the Twitter age, is to catch out celebrities and call them names – racist!”

I agree that art plays a vital and important role in conversations about oppression. Indeed, as pointed out by Leigh Silver at Complex, “The problem may not be the chair itself, but the fact that Zhukova, a privileged white woman, is sitting on a completely powerless black woman.” While Melgaard’s art satirically turned the black woman into an object, Zhukova – subject of the photo and owner of the artwork in question – is literally using the black woman as an object.

The outcry reminded me of Makode Linde’s 2012 performance art piece, ‘Painful Cake’. The performance featured Linde’s head painted as a grotesque golliwog over a cake shaped like a caricatured African women’s body. Guests, which included Sweden's minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, cut slices to reveal red spongecake while Linde simulated screams of agony. Both the artwork and the minister were criticised for racism, however further analysis of the piece revealed a much more profound comment on the subtle racism within the white savior complex.

I am sure that Zhukova does genuinely abhor racism. However as a white woman, she is unavoidably racist, as are all of us that have any measure of white privilege. We are blind to the myriad of ways in which paler skin is more positively regarded in our society because we don’t experience it first hand. The only way to improve ourselves is to keep learning, apologise when we screw up, and strive to do better next time. As I’m sure Zhukova can attest to, unlearning racism is a humbling but necessary process.

Perhaps this lesson is what Melgaard intended all along.

Frances Lockie is a Sydney-based writer who spends way too much time on the Internet.