In March, before the pandemic lockdown, I made a cute museum trip that included a visit to the Albertina. Honestly, I expected the usual Eurocentric Blockbuster exhibition: to show off canonized, typical white, old/dead, and male* positions, aka Gerhard Richter, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet in different constellations to satisfy the touristic and, therefore, also the governmental expectations. However, I didn’t expect what actually happened on display as soon as I entered the exhibition. So, I wrote an article about the curatorial setting and this exhibition as an institutional critique. The article couldn't get published for different reasons. Afterward, however I decided to revisit the exhibition, especially since the Austrian newspaper Falter published an article1 about racist language in museums and, in particular, about this show at Albertina.
In order for you to understand why I'm writing this article:
In March, when I descended the escalator of Albertina and saw the title "Warhol to Richter. From the collections of the Albertina Museum", all my worst fears got confirmed at first glance.
The opening sequence of the show was marked by two large-format drawings portraying Black womxn✶ – works by the white artist Michela Ghisetti from her series: AFAU (2012). As I continued walking, and although I've not even arrived at the end of the show, my expectations were already fulfilled. So far, all the artists shown have been white, from the Global North and predominantly male. Still, I was irritated by the aforementioned two works at the beginning of the show. I started asking myself to what extent the representation of Black bodies by white artists in a predominantly white curatorial setting inside a white institution is problematic. Phrases and words ran through my head. Before I continue telling you this story, I would like to clarify that I am white, a skin color that is structurally unmarked and loaded with many privileges. I'm not affected by racism, still I try to learn to recognize obvious discrimination. Also, the predominantly white country I'm living in, not only denies discrimination and does not recognize racist structures, too, that lead to an uneducated society. We all, including myself, still have to learn a lot about racism, reflect on our white privileges, and try to work really damn hard to support a change within this racist system (and not just for one day on Instagram).
So, I moved on with all these thoughts in my head, disappointed by the meaningless exhibition as expected. But then I reached the penultimate room of the show. I was shocked – stumbled around and tried to grasp what was shown:
Two giant works by the white artist Georg Baselitz, were hanging opposite to each other, supposed to be in a dialogue. As you might expect, the motifs of the paintings were inverted. One work showed a naked Black man✶ from the series of Baselitz' nudes. The accompanying text on the wall merely contained the indication of the artist, the title (Finger painting – Nude), the date (1973), and the note that the work is from the ESSL Collection. On the other side of the room, I saw another large-format portrait of a Black man✶, but his lower body and genital area were covered. In his left hand, the man holds a lock as well as a bow and an arrow, his hair contained an arrow, too. I took a closer look, while still considering Ghisetti's works at the entrance of the show. But then I read the wall text of the second painting: Georg Baselitz, 1938, "n-word (written-out in full without quotation marks)" - 2nd Hadendoa, 1972. Also, another contextualizing text was attached to the sign:
"The original title "n-word (written-out in full but italicized)" is by Georg Baselitz himself. In an interview in 2007, Baselitz recalled that the term "n-word(written-out in full but put in quotation marks)" was perfectly natural and used without any awareness of the defamation implied with the word in Saxony in the 1970s. Baselitz devoted himself intensively to the human image during this period, portraying himself, his parents, and historical persons. Magazine photos provided him with the respective motifs.
The artist was particularly fascinated by the hairstyle of the man, a Hadendoa, member of a nomadic people who live in certain regions of Sudan today. The work does not – typical of Baselitz – quote a photograph but is a painting rendering its motif inverted in order to draw the viewer's attention to the aesthetic event of colors and forms and reorient their habits of looking at things."
You probably are at the point where you just think WTF or let’s say: look at this example par excellence, this manifestation of white supremacy and structural racism.
Albertina produced a racist narrative about the Black body, because the works by Baselitz suppress the depicted body, because of the curatorial setting, the inherent and uncommented white gaze and the hypocritical explanation. With this explanation, they justified the use of the "n-word" by supporting Baselitz and this statement. By writing about Black bodies and the "n-word," using word expressions like "perfectly natural" and "used without any awareness of the defamation implied," they reduced the implication of this word. It is essential to point out the racist structure, suppressing violence, and conditions of historical documents, without negating the racist impact. But just commenting within one sentence on racism by claiming it was affiliated to the past times without any further contextualization is not the way to do so. Albertina left out the context and the educational work they are responsible for, as a cultural institution. Up to this, I'm asking myself if Baselitz and his title could be seen as a historical monument, or is it preservation of the racist structure. After all, Baselitz painted these works in the 70s. By calling out racism just as a "defamation," it is reducing its impact and discriminatory scale. Furthermore, they were defending their own curatorial decision by illustrating and strengthening established hegemonic and white power structures. In addition to this, they were producing as well as maintaining stereotypes by othering, exoticizing, and reducing the Black body, explaining that Baselitz painted those works because he was "particularly fascinated by the hairstyle."
But after the Lockdown, the protests of #BlackLivesMatter and maybe after the article at Falter (to be fair idk), the exhibition changed. Now, again descending the escalator, it was still the same title, but Ghisettis drawings2 were gone. I drifted through the exhibition and found some new paintings of the Global North male✶ art canon. Immediately, I was curious if they changed the curatorial setting of Baselitz's works as well. And they did. Now, the same work by Baselitz is placed in a room with a lot more works by himself and Gerhard Richter. The "n-word" is gone as a title, but this contextualizing text is still attached to the sign without further adjustment.
In addition to this, Falters article titled more or less What is the purpose of a "n-word (written-out in full but put in quotation marks)" in a museum? Racism does not matter to star painter Georg Baselitz and quoted the white head of Albertina, Klaus Albrecht Schröder. He stated that Albertina discussed the usage of the "n-word," but in the end, modifying racist titles would divide. Schröder thinks that it is still a problematic issue, and therefore, they decided to attach an explanatory text. Further, the article describes the etymology of the "n-word," shortly mentions something about Albrecht Dürer's drawings3 and ending with calling out Baselitz as outdated instead of discriminatory.
So, what's the deal with all of this – the show, the title, the curatorial setting, the change, the statement, the article? Why exhibit exactly these paintings by Baselitz even though Albertinas collection contains 127 of his works plus the ones from the ESSL Collection? Did Albertina think by letting the "n-word(written out in full)" disappear, no one would notice, and also the racist context would just eliminate itself? And why is Falter heading this article at their feuilleton with the "n-word" without really taking up position while just stating confusing things to mix everything up?
After all, language is violent, implies many forms of discrimination, and requires careful handling. So when discussing how to use the "n-word" in historical artifacts, we need to be aware that language can trigger and, at the same time, reflect on if we negate the discriminatory history by omitting it. Therefore, listen to Black people, who have been publishing this issue a long time ago and be aware of the social responsibility to reflect on our racist history. That's why I am asking Falter: is your headline a quote I don't know, or was it for clickbait?
But this whole debate about Albertina and Falter is not just about the use of language – it is merely about representation and structural discrimination. Institutions need to discuss to what extent such works should still be exhibited. If they decide to do so, these works require a curatorial context that critically examines them. This implies further perspectives, talks, texts to reflect on the historical and socio-political implications within our current system. In this way, we can work against a canon, repeatedly legitimized in its existence without addressing the fundamental problem of white hegemony. Collections have to be deconstructed, reflected upon, and restructured. The fact that they are predominantly white can be changed. It is an active choice, one that has to be made to finally gain a diverse and representative insight into artists' work. I also want to point out about the act of placing a small number of underrepresented groups and bodies to create the impression of diversity called tokenism. Albertina, in this case, didn't even represent BIPOC✶ artists, they just represented the white gaze of white artists on Black bodies. And even more, due to all this, they didn't even reflect on Baselitz himself: his activities as a collector focusing on the art of central and east Africa while at the same time kind of defending the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) in an interview Baselitz gave for zeit.de4 in 2018.
So here is the thing, maybe Albertina changed the title and the curatorial setting, but the racist implication of Baselitz painting is still left and on display, totally lost and without any contextualization. Albertina sneaked out and avoided a confrontation with its curatorial work. And by quietly negating their own action and still placing works by established white artists, without reflecting a thing, they proved how white supremacy still works at its best. Following the question for whom this show was conceived and by or for whom the works are exhibited, it is clear that they have not thought about diversity and – or only – about the white gaze. In the end, they have reproduced, reactivated, and thus produced racism themself.
Coming to the end of my story of this museum trip, which didn't turn out to be cute at all, I don't want to call out specifically Albertina, because, dear beloved Viennese institutions, this is a structural problem, and every institution is involved. Please start rethinking and educating yourself on your own gaze instead of curating shows with a seemingly diverse approach, ending up as an act of tokenism and thus reproducing racism and discrimination.
There are so many things we all need to change, so here are some incomplete wishes. It would be great, if you could reflect on why most of your staff members and curators are predominantly white and deliberate the structures you have built, as well as the hierarchy within these structures. Hire BIPOC✶s, redistribute positions of power, and ask yourself how institutions can become equal work environments for them. If museums are institutions to educate, please educate yourself as well. There are many anti-racism workshops created by Black people, especially for white people, to create awareness for everyday and structural racism. I mean, a lot of institutions offer in-service training about a bunch of topics, so anti-racism workshops are way overdue. After hiring a much more significant amount of diverse people (but not just for the sake of tokenism, I mean for real) and educating yourself (but please not only as a one-time thing), generate an anti-discriminatory agenda for your staff, your exhibitions and therefore your whole institution. Give yourself permission to listen and ask for help. Pay for your education. There are a lot of professional agencies run by BIPOC* specialized in advising cultural institutions about questions of discourse and representation. You would be better off by taking these opportunities and, moreover, avoid discriminating and triggering people by being ignorant. In addition to this, negotiate your collections, your produced narratives, and, once again, the art canon of the Global North. Actively begin to curate intersectional and anti-discriminatory shows, which implies demonstrating a political statement (not just for Instagram). As you can see, there is a lot to do (and probably much more). So, don't be a fool, beloved Viennese institutions, and be aware of your responsibility within this white supremacy.
Falter 24/20, June, 10: "Was soll ein "N-Wort(written-out in full but put in quotation marks)" im Museum? Rassismus ist Malerstar Georg Baselitz egal" ↩
The exhibition has now been postponed to 2021/22. ↩
The artist John Akomfrah negotiated Dürers drawings of Black people within his movie "Peripeteia", which was on display at Secession. ↩
Georg Baselitz and Hanno Rauterberg: "Ich bin völlig unvernünftig"(2018) Zeit-Online, p. 5: https://www.zeit.de/2018/04/georg-baselitz-maler-80-jahre-interview
ZEIT: Warum nicht? Mir kommt es manchmal so vor, als sei Donald Trump der letzte wahre Künstler, denn er agiert, wie man es lange den Künstlern nachgesagt hat: Er ist schamlos, narzisstisch, verrückt und behauptet, das Establishment aufmischen zu wollen.
Baselitz: Das sagen Sie, dass er wie ein Künstler agiert, ich sage, dass er agiert, wie ein vernünftiger Politiker heute agieren muss. Er versucht seine Versprechen durchzusetzen.
ZEIT: Und finden Sie Trumps Mauerpläne etwa auch vernünftig?
Baselitz: Schon wieder unterstellen Sie etwas. Ich will doch nicht beurteilen, was andere Präsidenten falsch oder richtig machen, wirklich nicht, das tun andere. Aber wie schützt man ein Land? Es gibt strenge Kontrollen, wenn Sie in die USA einreisen, fast so übel wie in der DDR. Doch was soll man dagegen sagen? So ein Land muss das machen. Viele installieren ja auch auf ihren Grundstücken eine Kamera, stellen einen Elektrozaun auf oder schaffen sich einen scharfen Hund an.
ZEIT: Auch in Deutschland gibt es ja ein solches Denken, etwa in Ihrer Heimat Sachsen, wo die AfD bei der Bundestagswahl abgeräumt hat.
Baselitz: Die Sachsen waren ja immer in Revolutionen anführend, Nietzsche und Wagner zum Beispiel, vielleicht sind sie jetzt wieder Anführer.
ZEIT: Und wie bewerten Sie all die populistischen Bewegungen, die gerade Europa erfassen?
Baselitz: Also, wissen Sie, konforme Medien versuchen sich immer als Anwälte darzustellen oder sogar als die Richter der Gesellschaft und der Welt. Und diese Konformität der Medien – es gibt ja keine oppositionellen Medien – lässt sie eine Macht ausüben, die überhaupt nicht mehr den gesellschaftlichen Verhältnissen entspricht. Sie haben eine Übermacht. ↩