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The Miroslava Chairgate & the commodification of black bodies

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The Miroslava Chairgate & the commodification of black bodies

A few days ago, this picture was published on Buro 24/7, an online lifestyle magazine founded and directed by style icon and fahsion writer Miroslava Duma. Here it is [first picture on the right] as it appeared on her Instagram feed

It features Dasha Zhukova, editor-in-chief of Garage Magazine, sitting on a cushion supported by a half-naked black woman mannequin, wearing only garter, gloves and boots and contorted like a chair frame with her knees pressing on her chest and her legs pulled up. The mannequin’s gaze is directed towards the Russian socialite who is staring at the camera.

The picture was published and circulated during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, an American holiday observed this year on January 20th.

Following online outrage and angry tweets, the image — which accompanied an interview with Zhukova — was cropped to remove the black mannequin from the picture. The website didn’t remove the photograph completely. The Instagram post was removed from Duma’s feed.

Sorry ur mad, it is just art

Duma later (i) apologized for offending others and (ii) told us that the chair “should only be seen as a piece of art” and “not any form of racial discrimination.”

Jezebel critiqued Duma for not actually saying “sorry” but instead choosing to “[go] down the ol’ ‘Sorry Ur Mad; I’m a nice person though!’ path.”

Zhukova defended the photo as art taken out of context:

The chair pictured in the Buro 24/7 website interview is an artwork created by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, one of a series that reinterprets art historical works from artist Allen Jones as a commentary on gender and racial politics. Its use in this photo shoot is regrettable as it took the artwork totally out of its intended context, particularly given that Buro 24/7's release of the article coincided with the important celebration of the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I regret allowing an artwork with such charged meaning to be used in this context. I utterly abhor racism and would like to apologize to those offended by my participation in this shoot.

Actually it ain’t, says the original 1969 artist

The chair is a variation of the bondage chair created by British artist Allen Jones in 1969 and part of a installation featuring three Caucasian women used as furniture.

Speaking on the new spin and ethnicity change, Jones appeared less than impressed. “I can see no aesthetic or formal reason for the artist to do this. Apart from being tacky, it is distasteful,” he said during an interview on the PM programme, a BBC Radio 4 daily broadcast.

The Tate Museum has a description of the original piece on its website:

In 1969 three female figures by Allen Jones each slightly larger than life size, ‘Hatstand’, ‘Table’ and ‘Chair’, were cast in fibreglass in editions of 6 by Gems Wax Models Ltd of Notting Hill, London, a firm of commercial sculptors who made (and make) shop window mannequins and sculptures for waxworks

Allison P Davis of questions whether the black bondage chair is actually part of Zhukova’s personal art collection and gives some social context to the original chair work:

If you’re going to defend your blunder by crying art, perhaps understand the totality of the work’s historical context and the international audience you reach on Instagram. Forniphilia is about bondage, sexual objectification, submission, and subjugation. Allen Jones’s women chairs and tables were (and remain) highly controversial. His work Chair, 1969 was damaged by feminist protesters in 1986 when they doused the work in paint thinner.

The disposable black body

The original artwork by Jones forces a gender analysis since it depicts women being turned into objects with specific functionality.

The Buro photo-shoot adds another layer on top of that by showcasing a privileged white women using a black mannequin as a chair. The way the chair is used forces a race analysis. It forces conversations on racial hierarchies and the fetishization of black bodies.

These topics are what usually keep people in post-colonial or cultural studies busy. They don’t impose themselves in full force if we restrict ourselves to a gender analysis of the photo.

Yet, in the comment sections of many articles on the topic, some agree about the controversial aspect of using of a human body as a chair, but deny racial undertones to the photo. In other words, the “black chair” can’t be racist since there was an original “white chair.”

But black and white bodies are not interchangeable in this context. The conversation about race is not about the chair, it is about black imagery. The focus is not on how a human body is being used as a chair frame, but on how a white billionaire is casually sitting on a contorted and over-sexualized black body.

I think that’s where the conversation should start. To spend time defending the chair as an isolated and critical piece of art is to miss the actual point.

This post was originally published on the author's Medium page

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arij (Arij Riahi)
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