When is blackface not actually blackface? Journalist defends her photo exhibit that digitally blackened the faces of numerous prominent white people

President Michel Temer and vaudeville performer Bert Williams

Note from BW of Brazil: HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of Black Women of Brazil’s readers and welcome to 2018! For my first post of 2018, I must take care of some unfinished business from 2017. Today, I follow up the previous post about a controversial art exhibit put on display last month by a French journalist and former consul living in Brazil. The first part of the post is an article fro the folks over at the Alma Preta website about how the exhibit was received on its first day. In following, I often my analysis and critique of the situation.

How did black visitors and militants interpret the Alexandra Loras exhibition?

By Runan Braz

After repercussion on social networks, with accusations of racism and blackface, the former consulate of France in Brazil Alexandra Loras inaugurated on December2nd in São Paulo the exhibition “Pourquoi Pas?” meaning “Por que não” in Portuguese and “Why not?” in English. The proposal of the art is to create a reflection on racism, showing the absence of blacks in the hegemonic spaces of society.

In the middle of the Rabieh Gallery, in the Jardins region of SP, 20 pictures of white personalities, such as João Doria, Donald Trump, Dilma Rousseff, William Waack and Xuxa are on display. They had their skins darkened by means of a digital manipulation, an act that provoked the great controversy.

The audience present on the first day of the event was little diverse. A minority of black skin tones stood out beside most white faces. There were more black people in the paintings of the pictures than black bodies present during much of the event. Alongside, elite white people took pictures, watched and analyzed the works.

Pessoas acompanham a exposição idealizada por Alexandra Loras (Foto - Runan Braz)
People observing the exhibition idealized by Alexandra Loras (Photo: Runan Braz)

Vision of militancy on the artivism

In social networks, many people and the black movement point out the use of the blackface, a caricature technique used in the theater and in the cinema that darkens the white skin with ink to stereotype black people offensively. The Coletivo Sistema Negro (Black System Collective) evaluates that the exposure is being done in the wrong way and disrespects the black population.

Image of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna was also blackened

“Blackface placed there, as an intention to be art, is a mistake because it starts from the premise that it is necessary to look at white figures painted black so that it produces “empathy” on the part of the white people, whom the expositor says that she wants to reach, on racism in Brazil,” explains the sociologist, knowledge curator and member of the Coletivo Sistema Negro, Tulio Custodio.

The collective also criticizes the strategy adopted by the former consulate, because the reflection motivated by this art will hardly cause an annoyance to the elite. A significant effect on public policy for black people, such as PEC das Domésticas e as Ações Afirmativas (Maid’s Law and Affirmative Actions).

Governador de São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), foi um dos representados (Foto - Runan Braz)
Governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), one of those represented at exhibit (photo – Runan Braz)

“The strategy is misguided based on its premise that through a colonialist bias question (“Why not?”, which is a sort of ban and sequester of the ‘No’ of the oppressed), it can reach the group, generally uncritical about the reality they experience, that benefits the most from the same reality,”says Tulio.

What the eyes see

In order to identify if the opinions of the black visitors coincided with the criticisms pointed out, we talked with some of them.

For Mayara de Souza, 25, a lawyer and graduate student, the strategy of drawing attention elaborated by the former consulate should be considered. Mayara respects the criticisms and the comments of militancy and says that the intention of the exhibition is to provoke the white people who delegitimize the black struggle.

“I look at these images and I don’t feel offended and I don’t think it demeans black people. They were not meant to be beautiful, but to raise the debate, we don’t have to paint white people in black to have visibility, but elite white people don’t know Luiz Gama, Abdias do Nascimento, Carolina Maria de Jesus,” she says.

However, Commander Jean Nascimento, of the  Sociedade Negra Paulistana (Black Society of São Paulo), agrees with the criticism of blackface, however, highlights the exhibition as a milestone of black representation in the artistic milieu. “Alexandra is opening the doors for artists such as the MIA, to put their expression in elite places,” he says.

Carlos Eduardo dos Santos, 57, travel agent, felt gratified to attend the exhibition and says that the criticisms made of the work are malicious and motivated by the lack of information. “We are reaching our goals in the show, making us present,” he says.

Educafro lawyer Débora Viviane Silva thought the exhibition was fantastic and how the former consulate provoked the debate, questioning the subordination. “The exhibition is done by a person who has representation, for the struggles and black causes and shows how Brazilian society treats blacks violently through contempt.”

Darkened image of actress Cameron Diaz

What does Alexandra Loras say?

For Alexandra Loras, the work that happens in the Jardins region is relevant to making whites of the elite see how the opposite world would be, out of protagonism. “They are the ones who hire us and who have the key to the game,” she explains. She apologizes to anyone who feels offended, claiming that the goal was not to offend but to create discomfort.

doria B-A
São Paulo mayor João Doria

Loras also commented on the intense criticism and repudiation of her work. She said that white oppression provoked black conflict with each other, contributing to the disunity and non-recognition of blacks in important positions.

“I respect the militant attacks, but this shows the ‘síndrome do capitão do mato’ (captain of the woods syndrome) within us. Minister Luislinda Valois, federal deputy Tia Eron, Labor Judge Mylene Ramos, me, Alexandra Loras, are constantly attacked by militants who think that to be a true militant we have to be starving in the favela, but the woman’s space is wherever she wants it to be. We need to be not only in the PT (Workers’ Party), but also in the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) and other parties,” she says.

Note from BW of Brazil: So today, this first day of 2018, I wanted to do a follow up on the material posted a few days ago. And actually, pointing out the fact that it is now 2018 is an important note as it amazes me that we still need to deal with the subject matter at this time. As we have seen in recent years, the average Brazilian doesn’t seem to know the racist origins of blackface as we’ve seen numerous examples of its usage from common everyday people to television and theater actors. The usage of blackface in the theater piece A Mulher do Trem actually sparked a live public debate that took place in São Paulo in 2015. Although that debate went further than the typical responses we hear when people learn that using blackface is an offensive practice, for the most part, its users continue to express the idea that they didn’t mean to offend anyone and didn’t know its history. For me, these unknown historical connotations weigh in on how I reacted to the recent “art” exhibit put on by the former consul of France in São Paulo, Alexandra Loras.

Alexandra Loras
Alexandra Loras

After receiving news that the exhibit offended some people, Loras defended herself against accusations that her photo exhibit made use of blackface in several media outlets including the São Paulo special edition of one the nation’s most important magazines, Veja. In this piece I wanted to share my own reaction to the photos of white Brazilians and non-Brazilians whose faces and hair were digitally altered so that they appeared to be black as well as respond to Loras’s own reaction to the criticism.

The first thing I want to deal with here is how the photos at the center of the controversy struck me at first sight, which was no different than similar depictions I’d seen over the years dating back to my childhood. Anytime images of white people are manipulated, be it with actual black makeup, or in this case digitally altered, the result is always the same. Such mages make my skin crawl as the people whose visuals have been blackened always look artificial, alien, inhuman, ghoulish and in some ways frightening. The photos manipulated in the Loras exhibit are no different.

bamboozled - Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson
Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover in Spike Lee’s 1999 film ‘Bamboozled’

Looking at the images of people like current and former Brazilian presidents Michel Temer and Dilma Rousseff, TV personality Xuxa, the queen of England and many others reminded me of what I saw in the 1999 Spike Lee film Bamboozled (released as A Hora do Show in Brazil). The images looked like monsters. I don’t know what it is about the actual skin color of African descendant people, but it doesn’t seem that it can be easily manipulated in a convincing manner and this exhibit is yet another example of this. The photo of journalist William Waack particularly looks like the aesthetic opposite of the creepy, exaggerated white makeup applied to actor Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker in the Batman film series.

Besides the hideous results of the vast majority of the photos, there is absolutely no reason to have even assumed such a project. And for several reasons.

The first reason is because, while many of people represented in the exhibit no doubt have the credentials necessary to fill the positions that they have, one cannot dismiss the whiteness factor, or better, the lack of blackness factor contributing to the success that they have come to attain. I know most Brazilians will not publicly acknowledge, but there are those few who are able to articulate the advantages that white skin has afforded them (see here, here and here). Simply put, attempting to darken the skin color actually hides one of the principal factors for why we know these people in the first place. We know that millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump not only for his physical whiteness, but also his coded white speech that resonated with those white voters who propelled him to the White House. We also know that major international modeling scouts go directly to Brazil’s most southern and whitest states in search the next Gisele Bündchen. Having the skin color and afro depicted in the exhibit’s photo removes the very physical characteristics that gave Bündchen the advantages that led her to attaining supermodel status in the first place.

My second reason for not supporting such an exhibit is the fact that over the past decade, I’ve seen more Brazilians painting themselves black than I’d care to remember. If we all agree that a practice like blackface dehumanizes black people (and I know many people don’t agree with that assessment), then why open an art exhibit which is tantamount to paying homage to such a practice? Even if Loras doesn’t see her artistic manipulation as blackface (which I will address later), how many people who claim to not know (many of whom probably actually don’t) the history of blackface will feel encouraged to pay “homage” to black people by painting their faces black after viewing this exhibit?

Marco Nanini surgiu de blackface em foto da gravação da novela Eta Mundo Bom! (2016)
Actor Marco Nanini showsup in blackface on the set of the Globo TV novela ‘Eta Mundo Bom!’ of 2016

Blackface has been a common display in Brazil’s media for decades, so what type of message does such an “art” exhibit give people when the display was sponsored by a black person? After all, what would be wrong with a white person painting themselves black when a prominent black figure has actually unknowingly co-signed on such an act? What reason would there be for anyone to understand the humiliating history of blackface if Loras has raised the practice to the status of a “respectful” presentation as a piece of art and invited the public to come and view the display at an exhibit?

Number three. When I see performers made up to appear to be another race I have always asked the question as to why the producers can’t simply hire a talented representative of the race that is to be portrayed? If representation is what Loras sought, she could have done the exhibit in a completely different manner. For example, most Brazilians are familiar with the presidential sashe that every Brazilian president wears. Instead of using digital manipulation to make white people who will continue to be white appear black, why not digitally manipulate a well-respected black Brazilian and digitally manipulate the presidential sashe onto the image of that person? Former STF (Supreme Court) president Joaquim Barbosa, who some Brazilians have voiced their support for as a potential presidential candidate, would be a worthy selection. Or how about featuring the black president that most Brazilians have probably never heard of: Nilo Piçanha?

Seeing that most fashion magazines such as Vogue’s Brazilian edition very rarely feature black women on their covers, and this being even more so of darker-skinned black women, I think it would have been a powerful image to depict women such as actress Erika Januza or singer IZA on a mock cover of Vogue. Both of these women are absolutely gorgeous and superimposing their images on the cover of a top fashion magazine such as Vogue would have been a powerful response to the ultra-whiteness of the vast majority of this magazine’s covers. But instead, she chose to use the images of already well-known white actresses such as Cameron Diaz and Marilyn Monroe.

januza - IZA
Actress Erika Januza, singer IZA

Along this same line, painting an American president that many black Americans deem as anti-black in blackface makes no sense when we’ve already seen eight years of an African-American president. Choosing to artificially blacken Donald Trump rather than featuring a real black president sends a message to me that applies to all of the figures in exhibit: even white people artificially painted black carry more value in an art exhibit than actual black people.

Bert Williams
Black vaudeville performer Bert Williams made up in blackface

Another issue I take with Loras are the comments she made in attempting to defend herself from criticism, the first comment being the idea that the art exhibit isn’t blackface because of the fact that she is black. This makes no logical sense. By this same logic, we should also not consider that Bert Williams didn’t wear blackface in his early 1900s comic routines because he was also black. Or maybe Tommy Davidson, Savion Glover and other actors didn’t actually don blackface in the aforementioned Bamboozled film because they too are black. I don’t feel the need to expound further on this point because it should be obvious. Blackface is blackface regardless of whether the face is actually black, white or other.

The other comment that left me a bit perplexed is Loras’s opinion that other black people who criticized her “art” would be suffering from a síndrome do capitão do mato, or captain of the woods syndrome. While it is true that this term has been tossed around quite a bit in Afro-Brazilian activist circles and has appeared frequently on this blog, I will explain again what the term means for readers unfamiliar with it. During Brazil’s three and half centuries of slavery, the capitão do mato, in their vast majority blacks or mulattos,  was given the task of catching fugitive slaves, returning them to their masters and receiving a reward for his services. In order to perform such tasks, black or mulatto men had to demonstrate complete servitude to system of slavery. In a famous painting, the German artist Rugendas, traveling in Brazil in 1822-1825, portrayed a black capitão do mato, mounted on horseback and pulling a captive (also black) with a rope. The manner in which black Brazilians use the term today is somewhat reminiscent of human rights activist Malcolm X’s description of the “house nigger”.

O caçador de recompensas procurando por escravos fugitivos (Rugendas, 1823)
1823 Rugendas painting portrays capitão do mato with a captured runaway slave

I take issue with the fact that Loras would say that there is a capitão do mato syndrome in reference to militants who criticized her “art” exhibit. The fact is, none of us are above criticism and because any one of us disagrees with her display does not mean that any of us would be willing to sell our own people out in the services of white supremacy. To the contrary, in some ways, one could actually make the same accusation of Loras herself. As I wrote above, Loras chose to use well-known white figures in her exhibit instead of simply doing an exhibit with well-known black people. According to the Alma Preta site responsible for the previous article in today’s piece, on the opening day of the exhibit there were far more white people present at the exhibit than black, and as such, not only were white people featured in her exhibit, the majority of her public was also white. I certainly have not heard of any outcry by white Brazilians who were offended by the display, although numerous black people were, and as such, I ask, in the end who does Loras serve with this exhibit? Let’s see…Blackened white people on display in the photos, mostly white people viewing the exhibit and few, if any, white people offended by the exhibit. To whom would the accusation of capitão do mato syndrome be more accurately applied here if we were to use such a term?

In conclusion, I find it absurd that in 2017 and now 2018, we still need to waste valuable time in the struggle defining what blackface is and why it should remain reprehensible. Several months ago, Alexandra Loras had the idea of portraying black women in a portrait as upper class, well-dressed women in a photo with white women serving as “the help” in the background. I recently featured that photo on this blog because I thought it was a creative idea that would, in fact, make people think about the idea of race and place in Brazilian society. But simply put, given the controversial history of turning white faces black, even digitally, it’s just a no-no, and if I reject it in film, movies, theater and on the faces of average people, I also reject it in an exhibit where one is supposed to view art. Even when its creator is also black.

Source: Alma Preta


About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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