The Moral Argument: A Review of 'Jealous Saboteurs'

Art

18.10.2017

The Moral Argument: A Review of 'Jealous Saboteurs'

The abstracted violence of the white imagination in the work of Francis Upritchard.

… this assumes the idea of a world or culture as a container. It’s got boundaries and we need to police them. If you take something from somebody else’s container, then you’re nicking something of theirs. In a more relational mode, though, it’s all about the quality of the relationship.

Professor Dame Anne Salmond

2017 has been a year of watching political structures and societal institutions decline while inequality and societal divisions rise. The phrase “we are now living in uncertain times” and close variations have cemented themselves in op-eds, reviews, features, media bulletins and the like the world over.

Before now, I have always thought of morals such as equality, respect and generosity as unspoken principles guiding political decision-making. However, today’s right-leaning political environment privileges power over this morality, hence the aforementioned sense of uncertainty. Things I once would have dismissed as completely insane – building walls between nations, the potential of nuclear war – are looking increasingly plausible, exposing the mismatch between the expectations of people like me, who want, even expect, things to be a bit better, and the intentions of those who have the power.

If our measures of a just, equal society are so different, what values do we actually share? While notions of what constitutes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have always existed on a scale, and have always to some extent been subjective, up for debate, there are ideologies, such as white supremacy, that have been so strongly and widely condemned by public officials that they feel absolute, non-negotiable. And yet the current ‘POTUS’ doesn’t seem to agree, insinuating a new moral ambiguity into questions I thought had been decisively answered. Somewhat less dramatically, the move towards Brexit suggests a resurgence of the anachronistic notions of nationalism and exclusion, rather than pluralism and generosity.

The glacial global progression toward some sense of a solid moral structure – in which sexism, racism and homophobia are clearly, unambiguously unacceptable – seems to have been pulled out from under us.

The glacial global progression toward some sense of a solid moral structure – in which sexism, racism and homophobia are clearly, unambiguously unacceptable – seems to have been pulled out from under us. It appears that bigoted thoughts, far from having dissipated, were simply being kept out of sight, waiting to bubble up. In 2017, it could not be clearer to me that, collectively, we still have much work to do. We cannot afford to slide backwards. In response to the assault on empathy, movements of resistance, debates and conversations advocating for a more open and caring world are emerging. We see this on social media, through Twitter ‘call out culture’, where users are quick to correct others who express views with slippery politics.

One of the most prominent issues within the culture is the issue of agency, which is constantly resurfacing. An example is Justin Timberlake’s recent tweet in response to actor Jesse Williams’ speech upon receiving the humanitarian award at the BET awards. The speech addressed centuries of systematic racism and exploitation. Timberlake’s assertion – “I really do feel that we are all one… A human race” – felt inappropriate, and ironic from someone whose career has been made on emulating black culture. And he was quickly dragged on Twitter for inserting himself into a conversation that does not actually need him as a spokesmodel.

Critics, not to say zealots, on the right would be quick to label this as “PC gone mad”; however, call out culture exists out of necessity, advocating societal self-awareness, counteracting the erosion of gains. 

Critics, not to say zealots, on the right would be quick to label this as “PC gone mad”; however, call out culture exists out of necessity, advocating societal self-awareness, counteracting the erosion of gains. Many of us who work in and around the art world depend on this culture, and the moral framework it offers, in working out what criteria to critique against, and what constitutes appropriateness in art-making. It seems that today concepts like ‘ambiguity’ and ‘open-endedness’, which have long reigned supreme in art spaces, are no longer on trend. The need for things to be definitive, however, becomes difficult in an industry designed to be ‘speculative’ and ‘reflective’, one that asks questions rather than answers them.

I come to Jealous Saboteurs, by Francis Upritchard (Pākehā), with these questions of morality and appropriateness at the forefront of my mind. A 20-year survey of Upritchard’s work, the exhibition is eminently complicated. Co-curated by Monash University Museum of Art’s Director Charlotte Day and City Gallery Wellington’s Chief Curator Robert Leonard, it is currently on a national tour. It first opened at Monash in February last year and it is soon to close at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Upritchard is a professional borrower, taking things from other people and cultures and refashioning them into her art. I’ve been aware of this problematic appropriating and the artist’s apolitical stance for some time, meaning that there is really nothing new about the show, but in the current climate it strikes a particularly raw nerve.

At City Gallery Wellington, the arrangement of Jealous Saboteurs roughly followed the geographic origins of Upritchard’s borrowing. Visitors were greeted by plays on Māori taonga from her Ancestral Boxes series, such as faux patu, hair combs and pins, accompanied by the infamous Pākehā Heads, based on toi moko. The adjacent room shifted you to Northeast Africa, with Ancient Egyptian-style objects, such as the Traveller’s Collection (2003), a glass cabinet of ‘treasures’, including a mummy and urns and staffs topped with animal heads.

The middle space was a culmination of general otherness with Upritchard’s signature sloths, carpets and riffs on bad orientalism, as well as watercolours full of figures with yellow skin. The final space contained her famous figures. Works such as Believer (2012), Nincompoop (2011) and Half Half (2014) seem like mocking versions of middle-class Pākehā turned yogis. There’s something humorous about them, but they never reach beyond irony. Meanwhile, Step Off (2014), Bangle (2015) and Hannah (2016) are Hottentot Venus-style fetishisations of black bodies. They are shocking in their insensitivity.

There’s a refusal to acknowledge where these objects and people come from unless you can identify the references visually yourself. And if you do, it’s hard to shake the horror and disbelief that surely you must be missing something intelligent and subversive, because after all it’s 2017.

There’s a refusal to acknowledge where these objects and people come from unless you can identify the references visually yourself. And if you do, it’s hard to shake the horror and disbelief that surely you must be missing something intelligent and subversive, because after all it’s 2017. In her catalogue essay ‘False Histories’, Megan Dunn quotes critic Alfred MacAdam as writing, “We live in nature, but we are not of nature. Our world, like that of Upritchard’s figures is what we create.” However, Upritchard has not created this world. Everything within it is from our world, albeit filtered through her memory, her vision.

Upritchard’s figures and objects do not exist in isolation but are connected to real people and histories. This notion is inadvertently acknowledged by the artist herself, who states, “They’re very inaccurate – decorative rather than spiritual. They’re meaningless, rather than full of the power of real taonga, and they have no mana.” She is right, they have zero mana (not that this excuses the appropriations), but the suggestion that they have no meaning is false and, in my view, flat out arrogant. Setting out to play with cultural context, they explicitly do have meaning.

We know that Upritchard is aware of how her own practice operates. This is perhaps most evident in the exhibition title, Jealous Saboteurs, which conveys a sense of Pākehā envy over interesting, ‘exotic’ cultures. This longing has long manifested itself in fetishisation of other cultures, ending up as a kind of sabotage of them, whether through misrepresentation or through Westernised, bastardised versioning. Even more menacingly, the title speaks to one being so jealous that they deliberately set out to sabotage. Does this mean that Upritchard’s copies set out to sabotage the originals? Is she the saboteur? And are we expected to give her a pass on the basis of self-awareness?

There is something to be said for the quality of Upritchard’s work. Her copies are not perfect, nor are they meant to be. The presence of the hand, her hand, is evident, since she makes from memory. But an associated effect is that she relays her dominance on to the cultural material of others. Her objects are mimics, mocking the originals with their caricatured features, such as crooked comb teeth, and stereotypical attributes. It’s safe to say that they are not beautiful, even if they are in some measure ‘decorative’.

If we accept this claim that there is no dominant culture in Upritchard’s work, why are there only (dominant) Pākehā voices from Aotearoa framing her practice? Where are the ‘Others’, who seem to be so greatly represented?

In his essay ‘Adrift in Otherness’, Leonard recalls the ‘postcolonial’ moment (as if the colonial moment were over) when Upritchard’s work first started to surface, through an ‘us and them’ dichotomy. There’s a sense of giddiness about the them. “We loved those Others (always capitalised) for their authenticity, we radiated guilt over how we’d framed them in the past”, he writes. Searching the essay for something to appease an ethical standpoint on profiting from marginalised communities, the only justification present is unsatisfying. Leonard suggests that by mashing together heaps of cultures, Upritchard somehow nullifies any offence caused to one specific culture, stating:

In it, different aspects and dimensions of Otherness are sandwiched and scrambled, making it hard to know whether we should look at her works as if they were representations of the Other, the Other’s own representations, or something else again. In 2009, curator Heather Galbraith was spot on when she observed that in Upritchard’s work ‘there is no dominant culture’.

If we accept this claim that there is no dominant culture in Upritchard’s work, why are there only (dominant) Pākehā voices from Aotearoa framing her practice? Where are the ‘Others’, who seem to be so greatly represented? Leonard tries hard to play the good guy, the good curator, but it is a mightily privileged position to have Pākehā curators affirm a Pākehā artist’s pastiches of Otherness. Still, credit given where credit is due, in an essay that is as confused as the work itself, Leonard hits the nail on the head when he comments that “its polemic lay in not having one”.

The quotation from Anne Salmond at the start of this essay was in response to a question in a recent interview with David Hall, in which he asked about the issue of cultural appropriation and how one navigates ‘hybridised space’. Salmond’s answer was about the quality of the relationship between the person doing the borrowing and the people being borrowed from. She notes:

If you start taking stuff and you never give anything back, if put your name all over it and take all the royalties, then of course it’s appropriation and, actually, really bad behaviour. Within that philosophy, it’s about the worst thing you could do. Whereas, if you’re genuine, if you maintain good friendships and you look after the people you work with, if their idea is theirs and you acknowledge this, if you honour [the relationship] and balance it and try to give back more than you take, it’s a gift exchange.

If we use this lens to consider the quality of the relationship between Upritchard and those she takes from, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no relationship. There are no non-Pākehā essayists in the catalogue and very few non-Pākehā curators at the institutions to which the show has toured. Upritchard does not work in a collaborative way, a situation that is often excused by her living in London and further excused by our institutions and the ways they present her work.

Francis Upritchard’s practice is an exercise of the white imagination, the same imagination that instils fear around terrorism, migrants and refugees; the same imagination that blames, condemns and imprisons; and the same imagination that keeps the marginalised marginalised. 

Francis Upritchard’s practice is an exercise of the white imagination, the same imagination that instils fear around terrorism, migrants and refugees; the same imagination that blames, condemns and imprisons; and the same imagination that keeps the marginalised marginalised. In an attempt to be generous, perhaps we can speculate that 20 years ago we were critiquing using other criteria, massaging Upritchard’s obsession with Otherness.

Yet now, here in Aotearoa, we are in a sensitive moment. On the one hand, positive processes are afoot, such as the repatriation of toi moko and the resurgence of te reo Māori. On the other, as we move through Tiriti settlements, there is an appetite among some New Zealanders to use the ‘settling’ of these grievances as an opportunity to ignore the past and to consider the slate wiped clean. A post-settlement society is nothing more than a myth, akin to the post-colonial society. In this moment of tension, there is no room for Upritchard’s pan-cultural ‘taonga’.

Morals are a marker of the times. In today’s turbulent political environment, what is right and good seems to be one of the few things we have to hold on to. This may not seem a desirable thing for an industry built on speculation; however, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It too is a part of our ‘uncertain world’. This is not a moment to prioritise fuzzy politics in our art spaces. Despite the recent appearance of a number of shows that should have been seriously questioned during the production process, such as The Body Laid Bare at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Malcolm Harrison: The Family at the Dowse, our institutions do not have a ‘get out of jail free card’.

It is not productive to say what artists should or shouldn’t be making, but there are robust moral arguments against Francis Upritchard’s Jealous Saboteurs and the institutions that have taken it on, arguments based on a lack of agency for those represented in the work, appropriation without engagement, and the exercising of unchecked privilege. Jealous Saboteurs is deaf, whether wittingly or not.

There’s a delusion present in the show, an institutional delusion that serves the institutions themselves and the Pākehā artists they promote in the name of ‘pushing boundaries’ and ‘asking the hard questions’. So, while we continue to convince ourselves that Jealous Saboteurs is about a Pākehā subjectivity, a Pākehā contending with Pākehāness, answer me: why does this experimentation come, yet again, at the expense of non-Pākehā? Just as the First Amendment in the United States does not license hate speech, the ‘right to speculate’ should not excuse a more abstracted violence.

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