Are we asking the wrong questions in the Marina Abramovic racism row?
‘Put it this way, I like her old stuff better than her new stuff,’ Sarah-Jane Norman says of fellow artist Marina Abramovic, who has been swept up in a social media storm for comments about Aboriginal people leaked from her forthcoming memoir.
In what she says is an uncorrected proof from the book, Abramovic describes Aboriginal people as ‘dinosaurs’, who are ‘strange and different’ and ‘look terrible’ to ‘Western eyes’ with bloated torsos and ‘sticklike’ legs.
Yet Abramovic says it was her experience with the Pitjantjatjara and the Pintupi in the Little Sandy Desert that instructed her life and art. It was the place where she learned ‘stillness and immateriality’, the core of her artistic practice.
In a statement clarifying her remarks after a page from the leaked memoir was posted on Instagram, Abramovic says she has the greatest respect for the ‘Aborigine people’ to whom she ‘owes everything’.
For Sarah-Jane Norman, who was one of two Aboriginal artists among 12 who undertook a residency with Abramovic in Sydney last year, the renowned performance artist’s work is problematic—but she still respects her as an elder within an artistic community.
The other Aboriginal artist who undertook the residency, Christian Thompson, has spoken out in defence of Abramovic. But as Norman tells Awaye’s Daniel Browning, her feelings are more complicated.
‘The turn that her practice has taken particularly in the last five years I think is extremely problematic, but I don’t dismiss her by any means,’ she says.
‘That’s what the problem is, I think, there’s a kind of paucity of discourse around the way that white artists in particular, in their encounters with Indigenous cultures, exert or act from a place of privilege and I think that that’s really big and really complicated conversation that needs to be happening.’
Vilifying Abramovic misses the point: Norman
Norman says her immediate reaction on reading the comments from the memoir was a sense of ‘reeling’. At the same time, she also felt completely unsurprised.
‘Because of the kind of encounters and discussions that I had with Marina in the course of the residency … or even in her public statements like her keynote speech, which she gave in Sydney, she said a bunch of stuff which I personally read as pretty questionable,’ she says.
In a post on Facebook, Norman provides further detail of what it was like to work with her.
‘Marina casually dismissed and erased my cultural identity in the same way that most white people do, whilst continually proselytising on the “purity” of Aboriginal people right to my face, as though she were speaking of a species quite separate to myself. My numerous attempts to counter this narrative were met with dismissal,’ she writes.
She says she does not feel compelled to defend Abramovic, but vilifying her also misses the point, and misses an opportunity.
‘When she says that she loves and respects Aboriginal people and culture, that she “owes everything” to us, I believe she is totally sincere. The problem is, she is totally sincere within an oppressive framework of fetishistic essentialism,’ the post continues.
‘In other words: she is a white person who has the privilege of skimming our culture for the parts that are useful or interesting to her, whilst failing completely to engage with the muck and pain of dispossession and coloniality and her own complicit position as its beneficiary.’
‘They thought they had a licence to do these things’
Nayuka Gorrie created the hashtag #theracistispresent at the height of the social media outrage, and doesn’t buy the non-apology for the remarks. But she also believes it is important to extend the outrage beyond the individual.
The hashtag plays on the title of Abramovic’s durational performance work, The Artist Is Present, where she sits opposite members of the public, holding their gaze, unmoving.
The Melbourne-based activist also believes it is important to extend the outrage beyond the individual.
‘It tapped into a lot of rage,’ she says of Abramovic’s comments. ‘The thing about this is it’s quite explicit, and it’s quite obvious racism.
‘I think whilst yes, get angry, tweet, Facebook, call out Penguin, call out Abramovic, we also need to remember that there is everyday racism, there is systemic racism that we also need to be able to call out as well … There are other things that we should be angry at as well.’
Independent Aboriginal art curator Djon Mundine has a long-term view. He remembers when Abramovic and her former collaborator Ulay first came to Australia to perform at the Biennale of Sydney in 1979.
‘They shook things up,’ he says. ‘They were like the premier couple, they were exotic, they used to take their clothes off… all these very “out there” things.
‘They were seen as this funny couple from the Balkans. That’s why that thought they had a licence to do these things, or that’s my impression.’
To Gorrie, the artist’s primitivism now just comes across as ‘super-weird’.
‘It mythologises us or mysticises us, and it’s very, very othering … using black experiences to legitimise your art,’ she says.
‘I think it’s bigger than she said some whack stuff. I think there’s a broader problem with the white gaze in general, when we are not in control of our own representations.’
The responsibilities of an artist with cult-like status
Sarah-Jane Norman says she’s baffled by the artist’s ‘extraordinary cult-like status’.
‘Marina Abramovic is just an artist. She’s not the most adept political commentator. She is a very complicated and flawed figure,’ she says.
She argues that this ‘stratospheric’ fame is completely disproportionate to her actual work as an artist. But that means her words are given real gravity in the public mind, and that Abramovic is accountable for her views.
‘It’s important to call out individuals … particularly individuals in the public eye who are being listened to, whose words are being taken seriously, who have a platform,’ she says.
‘But the conversation needs to expand beyond this culture of controversy where a very complicated, very layered conversation about racism and white privilege and about the way these things actually work just gets reduced to the level of clickbait, and we miss an opportunity in that to have a discussion that really needs to happen.’