words fail me

Quick opinion poll: which one of these statements is true?

a) Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States of America or b) Barack Obama is the forty fourth white president of  the United States of America.

If you answered a,  he’s mixed race so he’s not exactly black per se, so perhaps you should go to the back of the class and try to work out if answering a makes you a racist.  If you answered b, you should probably get your eyes tested as that is a very weird kind of colour blindness but for now, go to the back of the class and sit next to the possible racist.

Representation matters because people identify with each other.  If you come from a caste or group that is persistently represented in a negative, patronising, belligerent or subjective manner seeing that group you identify with presented in the manner most missing is going to do something to you and last Sunday Lynette Yiadom-Boakye ‘s exhibition Verses After Dark did exactly that to me.  I had gone on the recommendation of Anjalika Sagar who  I had a tutorial with the Friday before.  This tutorial was without a doubt the most thought provoking and interesting tutorial I have had in my time at Open School East.  Having a discussion with another woman who shares some of my experience around the subject of race and art was – I really lack the vocabulary here – great.  But it was seeing the exhibition that did a chaotic series of physical and emotional things to me and I am still working my way through them. 

Later, I tried to explain it to a fellow associate and I just couldn’t do it without resorting to lumpen phrases like, it isn’t possible for you to understand this…  This got the kind of standard liberal response to things that tickle at issues around racism which is to get really defensive at the merest suggestion that a person without, ahem, pigment, cannot understand or empathise with something that a non white person knows inside out.  This might make you think here we go again and I’d say you are kinda right if this is a post about racism but it isn’t.  It’s about being represented and not needing to qualify this representation and if issues around genes are mired in the middle of it, there is absolutely no reason to shoot the messenger.

Clearly, blackness, or more specifically, darkness, matters.  Lack of representation in places of power is all the more acute if you one day find yourself standing in a gallery where the only representation on the wall is of non-white people who you find it easier to identify with than the entire collection in the National Portrait Gallery; if you find your self in an exhibition that represents people who are absolutely not white and the theme is not about war, AIDS, fundamentalism, Ebola, female circumcision, gun crime, drugs, gangs, poverty whatever, it’s going to do something to you.

So there I was in an establishment that seems easily distracted by the shiny stuff that (pale) oligarchs and arty hangers on shimmer around in.  In the midst of portraits of black people, big portraits, some of them truly beautiful portraits in muted palettes, except for the sudden reds and greens and yellows was disorientating.  I have never been in a gallery of any kind anywhere in my entire well travelled life and seen anything like it.  Certainly I have seen exhibitions that are beautiful, impressive, thought provoking and enlightening,  lots of exhibitions about the black experience, for the most part  captured by people who cannot properly share it (and I am not criticising this work); I genuinely believe that  Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse deserved to win the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2015.  Still the Serpentine exhibition made me feel a little shaky, a little strange and incredibly elated in a manner Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work could never do.

I’m not talking about racism in the terms that I encountered it growing up, the casual under estimation of what I was and what I could ever be,  the vile taunts, the absurd and insulting ‘we think of you as being like us’ statement that was proffered as if it were a benediction.  That was just ignorance but what I  realise now is that ignorance was underpinned by an undeserved feeling of superiority that should have been interrogated and if it had been perhaps I would have a more subtle vocabulary to discuss it.  As despite the inescapable fact that Barack Obama is 50% white, his blackness somehow carries more weight and this is because of representation and it took some un-glossed representation to really hammer that point home.