The white artist privilege?
What do Miley Cyrus and Damien Hirst have in common? If you have little recollection of who they are, let’s take a quick walk down memory lane.
Miley Cyrus, American singer, songwriter, and actress, made her fame as a Disney kid in Hannah Montana, and only a few years back to shed off her goody two shoes image she hurriedly shed off most of her clothing, got atop a wrecking ball in her birthday suit to sing about an ex, and at MTV Awards twerked on Robin Thicke and simulated sex acts with a foam finger – not a particularly tasteful optic, as you can imagine.
Damien Hirst is an English artist, entrepreneur, and art collector, reportedly the United Kingdom’s richest living artist, became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved—sometimes having been dissected—in formaldehyde.
So far, not much in common, except that they both made the headlines in the last few weeks.
Miley, reformed twerker, covered Billboard Magazine, looking all country in a simple pink farm girl dress with frilly lace about the sleeves and bodice. Inside she is photographed in a plain white tee, red bandana, cut off denim shorts, cowboy boots and pig tails. Gone was the girl with the close shave women’s glossies would define as ‘edgy’ and here was a whole new Miley playing ‘country girl’. The interviewer adds, “She’s breaking a months long self-imposed “media blackout” and eager to unpack her latest thinking on everything from her alienation from hip-hop to engaging with Donald Trump’s supporters.”
Alienation from hip-hop strikes a chord, as Miley has swapped hip hop for ‘hippie’ with not a look back at the last few years of her career; like you would put yesterday’s clothes into the laundry basket as you put on today’s crisp, clean glad rags. As if it were a costume you donned for when it suited you and helped you get ahead.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that there was even a controversy around me having black dancers. That became a thing, where people said I was taking advantage of black culture,” Miley says before she adds, “But I also love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [“Humble”]: “Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.” I love that because it’s not “Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.” I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much “Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock” — I am so not that.”
Elsewhere, seemingly light years away from the Miley-verse was Damien Hirst who attracted the ire of Nigerians with his latest work entitled “Golden Heads (Female)” displayed at his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi. The work in question was an exact replica of the bust of a well-known Ife terracotta head sculpted by artists from Ile-Ife in present day Osun State between the 12th and 14th century. Only Hirst had failed to give credit to the original work.
Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor also showcasing at the Venice Biennial and presenting the Biography of the Forgotten, a large-scale work fusing abstract shapes with traditional sculpture, informed by an investment in classical Benin art and the effect of colonialism on cultural heritage, called Hirst out on his Instagram page on Tuesday.
Ehikhamenor captioned the post: “The British are back for more from 1897 to 2017. The Oni of Ife must hear this. ‘Golden heads (Female)’ by Damien Hirst currently part of his Venice show ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ at Palazzo Grassi.
“For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s.
“As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst, regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic, ‘Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s Golden Head.’ We need more biographers for our forgotten.”
While inspiration crossing that thin line into cultural appropriation is all too common in most forms of art, what is particularly offensive is the exploitative nature of one of the richest and most well-known living contemporary artists in the world co-opting traditional imagery for his own artistic purposes mirrors the very way in which British forces looted Nigerian cities in the late 19th century, plundering and seizing much of the native artwork.
While spokesperson for the exhibition curator, Elena Geuna has responded with, “One of the sources of inspiration for the exhibition is the collection of the British Museum, in London, where the Ife heads are displayed. An Ife head from the British Museum collection has also been included in the famous book, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ by the former museum director Neil MacGregor” it is not difficult to share Ehikhamenor’s outrage that the traditional art of ancient Africa is often described as ‘primitive’ or ‘ethnographic’ while an exact replica by a celebrated English artist is applauded with such vigour.
Much like, when DKNY is celebrated for making ‘baby hair’ fashionable – as if baby hair was actually a fashion accessory, or when Kim Kardashaian is credited for making ‘boxer braids’ – what black women have long worn as corn rows – trendy, or when Miley sells records appropriating the hip hop culture she can wash her hands off later and vilify for its degenerate lyrics…
Most likely, Hirst’s work will be exhibited, celebrated, commended as the work of a genius with the artist coming out of this controversy unscathed – and sadly African art forgotten by all but those who truly care for it – until of course it is picked up as ‘inspiration’ by another white artist. And, that, dear reader, is the white artist’s privilege, whether it is high-brow, or ‘down and dirty’ hip hop.