Galerie Steph, Singapore
Sept. 7 – Oct. 6, 2012
“The morally best, the most beautiful. The morally worst, the most deformed.” Johann Caspar Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy
“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
“Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
“The mind is a blank slate.”
“The individual who persecutes another because he is not of the same opinion is nothing less than a monster”
“I think, therefore I am”
A FEW THINGS EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT RACE in the United States
Slavery predates race. Throughout much of human history, societies have enslaved others, often as a result of conquest or war, even debt, but not because of physical characteristics or a belief in natural inferiority. Due to a unique set of historical circumstances, ours was the first slave system where all the slaves shared similar physical characteristics.
Race and freedom evolved together. The U.S. was founded on the radical new principle that “All men are created equal.” But our early economy was based largely on slavery. How could this anomaly be rationalized? The new idea of race helped explain why some people could be denied the rights and freedoms that others took for granted.
Race justified social inequalities as natural. As the race idea evolved, white superiority became “common sense” in America. It justified not only slavery but also the extermination of Indians, exclusion of Asian immigrants, and the taking of Mexican lands by a nation that professed a belief in democracy. Racial practices were institutionalized within American government, laws, and society.
Race isn’t biological, but racism is still real. Race is a powerful social idea that gives people different access to opportunities and resources. Our government and social institutions have created advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power, and resources to white people. This affects everyone, whether we are aware of it or not.
Colorblindness will not end racism. Pretending race doesn’t exist is not the same as creating equality. Race is more than stereotypes and individual prejudice. To combat racism, we need to identify and remedy social policies and institutional practices that advantage some groups at the expense of others.
A professor, who happens to be black, is arrested for breaking into his own home in Cambridge, MA. A black man is shot by police in Los Angeles — he is autistic. The ACLU investigates accounts that U.S. citizens perceived to be Muslim are unduly questioned about their religious beliefs by boarder patrol agents. A Mexican-American is late for work after he is pulled over and questioned on suspicion that he may be undocumented. Each represents a contemporary example of racial profiling and stand as the backdrop against which this project began.
Racial profiling is still at the center of political debates on: the criminal justice system, national security, and immigration reform, at a time when scholars and scientists have increasingly come to believe that race has more to do with culture than biology.
In order to decouple the appearance of difference from moral, legal, and spiritual judgments of all kinds, many have drawn attention to the economic and political invisibility of whiteness, from housing loans to the locations of supermarkets and fast food chains, AND while many have looked to literary and art historical depictions of race in painting and literature, the sculpted figure and the portrait bust have garnered little attention.
Informed and guided by the Enlightenment’s fascination with measuring everything from the angle of the forehead to the proportions of the body, this enlightened longing for knowledge contributed to the othering of difference across a wide range of subject positions. As the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth and nineteenth, numerous texts, treatises, and pamphlets, continued to shape ideals of beauty in the arts, humanities, and the sciences, and aspects of these legacies continue to be taught in art schools today, which speaks to the difficulty of seeing race, even when racial markers are clearly present. In a creative capital grant, I created a workshop on race combining the images I had shot, which historical information on race, which allowed students, faculty and staff to talk about race, without objectifying real people.
The sculptures are really just chuncks of stone. They don’t have a race. I then shot any of the kids, faculty or staff, that wanted to participate to be photographed..and they then wrote an essay on their own image, after which they received copies of the prints I made. The kids ranged from 6-8th grade.
The project, and the presentation, included photographs of sculptures, but Profiled is not a history of sculpture. It represents a conceptual clustering of works, arranged to foreground the emergence, idealization, and even the folly of race, including whiteness, which in turn, may provide a unique context from which to consider these sometimes conflicted and troubled works –works that, in some cases, might otherwise be withheld from public view. So, like the protagonist in a mystery novel, I set out to look for clues in what might be thought of as a vast cultural warehouse of sculptural depictions of race that spans more than two millennia and stretches across four continents –so far..
As so as many of these images suggest, Profiled opens up a discursive space from which to consider those unspoken histories embedded within a sculptural language, that most modern viewers are unable to read.
In the 18th Century Petrus Camper wrote:
To draw any head accurately in profile, takes me much time. I have dissected the sculls of people lately dead, that I might be able to define the lines of countenance… I began with the monkey, proceeded to the Negro and the European, till I ascended to the countenances of antiquity, and examined a Medusa, an Apollo, or a Venus de Medici. This concerns only the profile.
As noted in this passage, even an Apollo or a Venus came to symbolize a particular conception of human “achievement” or progress and as such, their marbled limbs tell us as much about the times in which they were made as the subjects they depict. The facial profile was obviously a favorite site for moral and character valuations long before the gentile paper silhouettes of the Victorians or the photographic mug shot of the criminologist. Today, the profiled image or mug-shot continues to be used by police, boarder patrol, and the whole criminal justice system but given recent advances in DNA and cell phone tracking one can’t help but wonder if the photographic profile continues to be a meaningful tool for identification at all.
Transported across time and space, these sculptures are silent reminders of persons once loved, worshipped, and even feared. Photographing and researching their origins has helped me to better understand, not only the conditions of their making, reception, and use, but the malleability of racial categories themselves. Profiled begins after these dated ideologies and their aesthetic manifestations have run their course, but the project is as much about the present as it is the sculptural double. Cast, carved, burned, and broken, these are the shadows of people that once lived in this world, or in the imaginations of their makers, and are subtle reminders of the kinds of philosophical, metaphysical, spiritual, legal, and scientific claims that were once dependent upon appearance alone. This project seeks to reconsider these motionless forms as part of the complex histories of racial formation because they encompass everything from memorials of Emperors and kings to gods and goddesses, Orientalist follies, and racial typologies all of which provides a new perspective on what it means to be profiled in our own time.