Issue 2

Behind the Cover Art

Featured: Helen Wordsworth

‘The Voice of Your Eyes’

My father gave me a love for poetry, and so I took great inspiration from the E.E. Cummings’ poem, ‘Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond’, in which the line ‘the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses’, predominantly atmospheric within its lapidary language, provoked personal consideration of chosen imagery within poetry. I love poetry for its ability to alleviate everyday stress through connection, amalgamating imagination with the sway of experience. Wanting to delve into this powerful form of expression within my art, I chose to try and visually communicate the line’s overall intensity of feeling. What comes across captivatingly is the fluidity between the layered visuals of ‘roses’, and the stressed sensory language of ‘voice’ and ‘eyes’, so when illustrating this I edited a photograph so as to heighten the seemingly active eyes through the use of piercing, translucent, almost ethereal roses, delicately collaged to complement the piece through slight distortion. 

 

My first attempt at a response was a large-scale pencil drawing, in which I comfortably illustrated the line with less focus on the ominous tone, and rather more on the simplistic beauty. However, although pretty and soft within the blending of pinks, purples and blues amongst white, I wanted to go deeper into the characteristic intimacy, so created a second version, replacing the dream-like vacancy of expression with piercing eye contact. I didn’t want the tone of the piece to lose its vehemence of emotion through more conventional connotations of pleasant colours such as red or pink roses, so instead chose to paint in more stifling blues and greys, embellishing the ambivalence of emotion I wanted to present. I also used metallic silver paint which I thought was quite fun, as it is subtly surprising when the painting shimmers in a certain light. The painting process took two weeks, as adding layers further deepened details suggestive of immersive beauty in a more intense dreamlike surrealism. The focal point of the piece being the eyes, as in the line they are personified when given a ‘voice’, further reiterates the idea of personal connection within poetry, as anyone can take what they want from words, and I feel visual expression is the same way.

I’m Wuthering...Is this the height of cinema? 

Anne Moorhouse dissects the pros and cons of adapting novels to screen, using the iconic Wuthering Heights as her prime example.

Image(s): altfg.com

 

Guilty as charged: I confess, there is a certain, how do the French put it… ‘je ne sais quoi’ about television and film adaptations of novels. ‘Hits different’ as the youths of today chant on departing from the local Greggs, sausage rolls at the ready. I’ve indulged in as many historical dramas as much as the next lonesome history teacher out there, whiling away their Saturday evenings. However, Samuel Goldwyn’s 1939 production of Emily Bronte’s acclaimed novel Wuthering Heights, while perhaps illuminating the director “at his best” (Frank S. Nugent), does not reveal Bronte “at hers”.

 

‘Twas a drizzly Tuesday when I simmered down to scour the depths of Britain’s beloved BBC iPlayer…dabbing a tear as I cast aside Colin, helplessly restraining from the ninth re-watch of Pride and Prejudice. Disappointed and somewhat surprised by the barren wasteland of options, I came across a full, albeit Portuguese, version (don’t get too excited, the English pulled through) of ‘Wuthering Heights’ on YouTube…

 

…The first musical chord strikes and is swiftly followed by the high lyrical hum of violins, inducing a strong feeling of comfort at the warm familiarity of old British cinema. A good start, I think…Ben, Jerry, tonight is the night. On first reading the novel, I imagined the initial narrator, Mr. Lockwood, to be a young, dashing traveller. This had been largely established through our later discovery of his attraction towards the character of young Cathy Linton, describing her face and eyes as “exquisite” and “irresistible”. However, what appears to be Goldwyn’s grandfather hobbles onto the set. Somewhat perturbed by the memory of these descriptions, now in conjunction with the face of an elderly man looking as if he needs a sit down rather than a set, I feel a sense of gratitude for having read the novel first. I forcefully invite you now to engage in some serious self-reflection and promise to yourself to always read the book first…unless you happen to be some poor unfortunate soul deprived of imagination, in which case, the casting for Lockwood fits the bill nicely.

 

Too often have my ideas of the characters and settings in novels been warped, nay, irrevocably polluted by the faces of actors and stage sets. A large part of the enjoyment I take from a novel is allowing my imagination to be carried off by the vibrant descriptions and vivid character profiles. Indeed, in this Gothic Romance, Bronte’s authentic depictions of the Yorkshire landscape, enriched by her own childhood experiences, lie close to the heart of its success as a novel for me. Despite its importance to the genre, one would not guess that the visual Gothic held any relevance to Goldwyn’s film. The chilling, eerie darkness that pervades the novel and intertwines with many of the characters themselves was about as present in the film as the character of Hareton Earnshaw…in other words, non-existent (correct, the film, as have many other adaptations, cut out the entirety of the second half of the book). Consequently, I would have to partially disagree with Linda Hutcheon in her assessment, “An adaptation is not vampiric: it does not draw the life-blood from its source and leave it dying or dead, nor is it paler than the adapted work”. While Goldwyn’s adaptation was by no means at all “dead”, it was rendered “paler” than the original text.

 

Largely stemming from the heavy romanticisation of the novel’s content, Goldwyn’s portrayal of Catherine Linton, played by Merle Oberon, poses the risk of obscuring Bronte’s original depiction of the novel’s heroine. While “it isn’t exactly a faithful transcription”, argues Nugent, “it is a faithful adaptation…which goes straight to the heart of the book.” That’s a no from me, pal. Eradicating half the plot is evidence enough against this claim. Lacking an authentic transcription of the original text is not necessarily problematic for film adaptations and is often required to retain a sense of flow. Goldwyn’s downfall in this regard is not the transcript, but a transmogrifying of Bronte’s work which would no doubt cause the old dear to roll over in her grave. Chapter 8 in the novel importantly establishes the soul-like bond and similarly violent tendencies of Catherine and Heathcliff. Catherine is described as “spitefully” pinching and slapping the housekeeper Nelly, abusing her young nephew Hareton and striking her husband-to-be Edgar Linton. Evidently, Goldwyn was having none of it. Catherine is presented as simply vocal, defending herself against Edgar’s provoking comments, and Heathcliff is the one to strike Catherine, slapping her face in with not one, but two whopping blows. The gender-role reversal here is detrimental to our impression of Bronte’s characters, in determining our sympathies, and in its presentation of women.

 

However, revered by Nugent as “one of the most distinguished pictures”, the film, when taken in isolation, is indeed commendable for its costume, lighting, cinematography and, above all, acting. Overall, Goldwyn deserves a large pat on the back for his casting choices, if not a substantial celebratory pint for his inclusion of Laurence Olivier…if I may be so bold. Starring as Heathcliff, Olivier earned his shining reputation from the 20th-century classics Spartacus, Hamlet, and Rebecca. Olivier’s near Shakespearean acting of the novel’s protagonist sends this otherwise black and white film blooming with colour. As a film, it is most certainly deserving of its eight Academy Awards.

 

One of the work’s critical moments is the scene in which Heathcliff runs to the window from which Lockwood claims to have heard the voice of Catherine Linton, Heathcliff’s “heart’s darling”. It is here that we obtain our first insight into the complexity of this character, his intense love for Catherine temporarily overriding the brooding, dark, and often malevolent self that he otherwise presents. Whilst Bronte paints a scene in which Heathcliff, overcome with heated emotion, faintly requests Lockwood to leave the room, Goldwyn conjures a far more dramatic and arguably more suitable rendition of the scene for cinematic purposes.

 

Manhandling supreme, the elderly Lockwood is sent flying at top speed from the room. However, the contrapuntal interplay of the two actors’ voices, followed by this dramatic display of force creates a far more effective crescendo of emotion and tension. The result is in an excellent delivery by Olivier of one of his character’s most important lines: “Cathy, do come! Oh do – once more! Oh! My heart’s darling! Hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” Not cutting it to send those tear ducts streaming? Not a problem sir. The mournful return of “Cathy’s Theme”, composed by Alfred Newman, to compliment the final scene in which Heathcliff is forced to bid farewell to the dying Catherine, the character who throughout has been developed as Heathcliff’s ‘other’, his very soul, will have every sucker sobbing. Yes, a tear or two was shed, a Kleenex or ten were drenched.

 

A touching ending indeed; the choir only just make it to that top A, ghost-like silhouettes of Catherine and Heathcliff are off on yet another walk to their favourite Cragg, and a quite frankly shattered looking Nelly (who can blame her really, she’s had a tough ride) sends all the fathers in the audience wailing with her last line “Goodbye Heathcliff. Goodbye my wild sweet Cathy.” You were close Nel, but not quite…so much for your earlier complaint in the book, “I own I did not like her after her infancy was past.” Despite somewhat neglecting the text, as a film, it is well crafted, highly enjoyable and I would recommend it. I would also promote the importance of film adaptations for broadening the awareness of fantastic novels such as this one. However, do not seek more than this awareness of the novel in watching this film. You will find yourself in an eye-socket wrenching situation of the most sensational embarrassment if you are found out in claiming to know the novel from what happens in the film. Easy solution – read the novel first!

The Lost Art of Poetry for Young People

Ella Crowsley explores the degradation of the poetry curriculum in schools, and why poetry is vital for student minds

Image(s): theelephant.info

 

As a third-year English student, it’s no surprise that I have a passion for poetry. I’ve always admired a poet's ability to compact such intense images and emotions into so few words. This style of literary work portrays such immense expression through the use of a distinctive style and rhythm in a way that, in my opinion, nothing else can. Poetry can have such great panache, so why is it that it doesn’t seem to appeal to young people in the modern-day?

 

I was shocked to find out that amongst the chaos of school exams in the time of Covid-19, poetry is one of the few topics that will become optional within the English Literature GCSE course in the UK. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation has stated that it had decided to offer students a choice of subject matters after schools expressed “significant concern” about their ability to cover all areas of the syllabus. Whilst the struggles held by teachers are entirely understandable throughout the next year, why should poetry be considered any less important than, say, 19th-century literature; an area that is still being covered?

 

It seems such a shame, not only because poetry can immerse young people in a genre of imagery and imagination, but because there is so much that can be learnt from it in both reading and writing. Poetry can teach students how to understand and interpret any text, as well as encourage precise yet detailed writing. By investigating the grammar, punctuation, and writing style of others, they can enhance their own. This is a skill that can be applied to any career or discipline later in life. Poetry is unique as a literary form, in that it essentially has no rules. There’s no accepted standardised length or form, no conventions. To me, this enhances the excitement a piece can offer.

 

Perhaps the typical tired lessons of iambic pentameter and metaphors have left students disengaged with the art form. Within school English classes, a single short poem almost seems frivolous against a whole novel; like it’s become a supplement and not something to be studied on its own. I always wonder if the frustration stems from the seemingly futile hours of studying such a short piece in so much detail that it makes you question whether that’s really what the writer originally intended, or whether you’re merely picking out meaningless annotations. I can remember my younger sister commenting when revising for her GCSEs that the writer never thought ‘I’m going to make the sky blue to represent loneliness and depression… the sky is just blue!!’ She did have a point. It seems that many English teachers delve into such detail, with each and every word is being investigated, that it can’t help but feel tedious. And yet, despite this, there are more poetry magazines and journals than ever before. More collections are being published; more poetry programmes are being taken at universities. So why does poetry feel so elusive in the world of reading for pleasure, especially for young people?

 

My first thought on this is that poetry is often considered a ‘higher’ art form. Something to be admired and studied, rather than to be purely enjoyed. I think this stems from the fact that good poetry is so difficult to write because of its concision and the precision of its words. In the past, only the higher, educated classes would have been exposed to the art form and its intricacies. But now, there’s no reason why it can’t be enjoyed by the masses.

 

Perhaps if exam boards could choose more modern, representative poets to feature in their exams, young people would find it instantly more engaging. The years of Wordsworth and Elliot are not relatable for teenagers. Poets such as Jackie Kay and Benjamin Zephaniah have risen through the genre, offering modern perspectives and form to the traditional poem. Tishani Doshi’s incredible 2017 poem Girls are Coming Out of the Woods depicts the “multitude of scars” that young women face as they grow up. Themes like gender don’t just need to be seen as the cliched ‘women are housewives who were seen as less than men’ that we’ve all grown accustomed to, but instead can target topics that students actually encounter in their day to day lives. I wonder, if more relevant and even taboo topics were presented to young people in schools, would they be drawn to poetry?

 

Andrew Simmons points out that “poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions”. This offers an interesting perspective that’s not often considered regarding poetry, that not only can we study poetry in the academic sense, but maybe it can aid us in personal skills. Whether it’s understanding different perspectives of people across multiple cultures or societies, or helping students express emotions in a controlled way, there is no doubt that poetry can really help young people find their own voice. Poetry writing has never been part of the GCSE syllabus in the UK and perhaps has been greatly overlooked as a useful skill. Whilst it could be argued that poetry writing is subjective and therefore cannot be marked fairly, it can still be seen as a valuable skill, if not in exams, then purely as an activity. In an age of social media and young people closing themselves off, surely it’s more important than ever to be encouraging methods of self-expression?

 

While conducting research for this article, I spoke to four student poets about their thoughts on how poetry is taught in schools and their experience of poetry growing up. The overwhelming feeling was that poetry is taught to young people as clinical analysis in order to answer mundane questions, rather than the beautiful and free-flowing art form that it truly is. Two of the writers mentioned the alienating style of tuition regarding poetry, commenting that the pressure from schools to interpret poetry correctly pushed them away from merely enjoying the pieces. It seems that writing your own poetry, or even simply enjoying poetry as young people in our generation is often stigmatised as overly emotional. All four poets I spoke to talked of the outlet that poetry has been for them, allowing thoughts to be expressed honestly and freely. Furthermore, all agreed that if school and exam boards could take advantage of new and emerging writers and forms of poetry, perhaps young people would be more engaged. Spoken word and the ever-growing Instagram poetry scene are the perfect way to draw in students to a relatable and appealing style of poetry.

 

An argument against teaching poetry in schools that’s often presented is that poetry is too complex for young people to understand. But surely this is the point of education? To expose young people to cultures and works that they may not understand at first. Poetry doesn’t even necessarily need to be understood but can merely be enjoyed for its beauty and composure. By exposing students to language, voice, and representation, we allow them to broaden their perspective of society and reflect on their own lives.

 

I’m saddened by the lack of engagement with poetry amongst young people, and I hope that many schools make the decision to keep the topic as an area of study for exams in the future. I would encourage anyone thinking about writing to give it a go, even just to get words down on a page. Reading and writing is an activity that should be learnt by all, if not for pure enjoyment, then for the attitudes and aspects of history that all can learn from.

 

Thank you so much to James McNinch, Chloe Chuck, Sophie Sullivan, and Evelyn Hoon for assisting me in researching this topic! You can take a look at some of their own poetry below.

 

- Chloe Chuck

- James McNinch

Musical Theatre: A Mirror of History

Isabelle Molinari traces the pattern of Broadway musicals offering timely social commentary, and what makes them so influential

Image(s): playbill.com

 

Most of the time, performing arts is referred to as ‘an escape’. People go to the theatre to be transported, whether it be to the Merry Old Land of Oz or Imperial Russia. The goal is to be sent somewhere that isn’t right here, right now. If this is true, it would seem odd that some incredibly well-known shows would be reflections of their eras. Shows like Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and Rent were not only popular in their first run, but have seen many revivals, film versions, and even high school variations for amateur performers. So what is it about these shows that made them popular, even when they shined a light on things that weren’t so pretty?

 

One that sticks out, in particular, is the incredibly successful Guys and Dolls. This 1950’s hit opened on Broadway on November 24, 1950, and in 1951 it received 5 Tony awards, including one for Best Musical. The show remained open for another 3 years, closing on November 28, 1953, after 1200 performances (Playbill.com). While longer runs were more common in that age, Guys and Dolls is still an incredibly popular musical that has been revived on Broadway and the West End at least five times since. This beloved musical was not so much an escape for Broadway-goers as it was a reality check. Adapted from Damon Runyon’s short stories from the 1930s, the musical showcases the high-roller lifestyle common in that time, but also the struggles of your average showgirl and frustrated fiancé. These themes were not something foreign to those who lived in the 1950’s New York City. Prohibition had been repealed, but the games and competitions that had been central to drinking together were still illegal. With Nevada as a haven for larger, legal gambling, those who weren’t ready to move their lives had to move their games underground. It also reflected some of that 1920’s spirit of the ‘free’ woman that people were missing since the Great Depression and WWII. Despite this show’s relevancy at the time, it manages to remain extremely popular today. There is not only the lure of organized crime, which made popular movies like The Godfather, but also some familiar characters, like Lt. Brannigan and Sky Masterson, and some relatable ones like Adelaide. Anyone who has waited for their significant other to make a move can laugh at ‘Adelaide’s Lamet’ where she comments ‘Just from waiting around for that little band of gold a person can develop a cold’. This show was not only a reflection of its own time, but today provides familiarity alongside comedy.

 

Another musical from the same era takes a completely different, but still reflective look at New York City. West Side Story was on Broadway for 732 performances from September 26, 1957, until Jun 27, 1959. This classic also won 5 Tonys, one of which was Best Musical, and had 4 more Broadway revivals, including one which opened in February 2020 (Playbill.com). While the timelessness of this production is partly owed to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there are other reasons this production hit its 1950’s audience differently. The musical perfectly reflected the simmering tensions on the streets between gangs. This tension was real for so many as there truly were incidents of residents clashing with new immigrants. However, this show too has elements of timelessness. Arthur Laurents admitted that he used some language of his own in order to extend the relevance of the show since he knew that ‘street slang’ changed rapidly (Google Arts and Culture). Today, the show is both a window to another world and a comment on the present world. There is both the fantasy of a time many of us don’t remember and the reality of violence and anger against people who are new or different.

 

Jonathan Larson’s Rent does the same thing as West Side Story and Guys and Dolls, but he took on the most taboo topic yet. Rent opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, and closed on September 7th, 2008 (Playbill.com). During this period, the musical was performed 5,123 times in the Nederlander Theatre, making it the 11th longest-running musical on Broadway after classics like Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast (Todaytix.com). The Tony Award for Best Musical, alongside 3 others, make it evident that critics loved this production just as much as the audience did. This show was both shocking and relatable. It was a retelling of La Bohѐme, which was not universally loved in its time, but what made Rent even more groundbreaking was its harsh look at reality. It spoke to those who were tragically affected by the AIDS crisis and put at the centre of the story those who were not centre stage in life: members of the LGBTQ+ community, the poor, the artists. While some parts of this show play on stereotypes, there is also much more exploration and space for characters that often get written as a stereotype and nothing more. This show remains extremely popular, not in the sense that it has timeless language or experiences, but because it speaks to pure human emotions such as fear, loss, and hope.

 

It is possible that these shows are attractive not because they are relevant in their time, but because the things they deal with are timeless. Whether more light-hearted things like ignorant spouses-to-be or more heavy themes like that of Rent, these shows remain popular today because they are something familiar. They might have been reflective of their time, but they also serve to reflect emotions and experiences that are common between everyone. Everyone knows what it is like to be annoyed with the behaviour of someone they love, to be ostracized for being different, and to feel hopeless and like the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out. So if shows are a mirror for history, but also a mirror for common emotions, could that mean that these things haven’t changed as much as we think? Perhaps the emotions and experiences at the core of the human experience are the same at a 1950’s racetrack as they are at a university in 2020.

From Runway to Broadway: The Evolution of Fashion for Characterisation

Sarah Johnston examines the parallels between the clothing of high fashion and musical theatre, and how they tell stories

Image(s): timeout.com

 

What does what we wear tell others about us? I don’t know about you but I don’t consider myself a fashionable person. I have a strong function-over-fashion mentality and I’m more likely to be found in some leggings and a hoodie than in anything designer. My outfits probably give away nothing other than my love for baggy jumpers. However, there are people whose job it is to create outfits that could tell you everything you possibly need to know about someone.

 

In my mind, the world of high fashion and theatre are quite distinct entities, but when it comes down to it, both fashion designers and theatre costumers are both just trying to create beautiful pieces that express character and send a message. Creating outfits for the sake of being displayed is truly an art form: hours of work will go into it, and subtle choices made by designers are often overlooked by audiences, whether at New York Fashion Week or opening night of a play. Designers deserve more credit for their contributions to characterization, on the runway, and on the stage.

 

The musical ‘Hamilton’ received glowing reviews for a wide range of areas: the diverse casting, the vocal quality of the performers, the excellent execution of staging, but its costumes were heavily overlooked. Hamilton broke down the story of ‘Alexander Hamilton’, and for the first time, portrayed the founding fathers and associated acquaintances as ethnically diverse. Its landmark presentation of a non-white set of founding fathers sparked discussion across the media and the show used its platform to promote the Black Lives Matter movement. In Hamilton, every member of the cast in a role, regardless of the colour of their skin, wears the same costume: the costumes weren’t designed to show the performers as a diverse, multicultural group, they were costumed as normal people to highlight that a variety of ethnicities was normal and not exceptional. Any other perception comes from ‘whitewashing’ or similar cultural biases.

 

In a similar vein, the Valentino Spring 2019 Couture Collection was designed to recapture a diverse history. All the designs were based on an iconic photo from 1948 by Charles James of an all-white cast of models in ball gowns, and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s vision was to recreate the fashions of that time but on a cast of mostly black models. His idea was that the beauty of uber-exclusive haute couture was for everyone, not just the predominantly white upper echelons of society who had ownership of it for so long.

 

Although executed in very different ways, both Pierpaolo and Paul Tazewell, who costumed Hamilton, were trying to highlight inclusivity and equality and express that their models or performers should be equals, not exceptions.

 

However, costuming is not just used to highlight messages from shows, but also to highlight key aspects of the characters themselves. Julie Taymor won two Tony Awards for directing and costuming ‘The Lion King’, and when you analyse the complexity of the staging and costuming, it's clear she deserved them.

 

Lion King is known for its unique masks and puppets that go along with all the characters, but more than just being aesthetically pleasing and adding to the setting of the show, the costumes were designed to represent their characters. Mufasa’s mask has a circular halo of brush reeds in it, representing the Sun. This is meant to symbolize the symmetry and balance of Mufasa’s character, and the warmth which he radiates to his family and subjects. Similarly, Simba’s mask is designed with a halo, but this time with an oblong shape instead of the circle of Mufasa’s mask. This represents his potential to achieve balance and his importance in keeping the kingdom in balance, but the fact that he is not quite ready. Nala’s mask is similarly oblong to compliment Simba’s but features an iconic crack that represents her own faults and her role in ‘fixing’ Simba. A comparable technique is used in the for the puppets: Timon’s puppet is loosely attached to its puppeteer because he’s skittish, Pumba’s puppet has only a large head and very little body because of his association with food, and the puppeteer for Zazu being dressed in a bowler hat and tailcoat representing his role as a servant to Simba.

 

Similarly, in fashion, designers seek to create pieces that represent something about the character they are designed for. In his 1999 Spring/Summer show, Alexander McQueen famously showcased a dress which was spray-painted by robots live on stage. The show thus far had showcased lighter, plainer, and less sensual designs compared to McQueen’s usual and closed out with Shalom Harlow entering in a strapless dress as two robots – designed for painting cars – whirred to life and painted the dress as she spun. This represented the individuality of everyone who wears fashion – that although the clothes they wear could be the same, they were each distinct individuals.

 

Similarly, Dior’s 2019 Fall Collection was inspired by feminism and the role of unique women in the art world. Models sported some of the most seminal feminist outfits, inspired by the World War II Land Girls, men’s Edwardian clothing, and non-sexual sportswear paired with bejeweled kitten heels, ballgowns, and bustiers. The contrast of this collection highlighted that women cannot be contained in a societal box as they may have been in the past.

The highlight of the show was the iconic off-the-shoulder navy ‘ballgown’, which was actually made of separate functional pieces that could be used for casual wear, business apparel, or black-tie events. This drew attention to the idea that women don’t only want to spend money on fashion, and need fashion which is adaptable, suitable, and fits their work and home life requirements.

 

Costuming is a powerful tool to express character, both for actual characters and for real people. Designers use clothing to express themes, political messages, or give insight into a character. Next time you see a performance, whether it be a fashion show, a play, or just a TV show, think about what the character is wearing. Is it something that fits their character or something out of the box for them? Does it fit the theme of the show? Would you wear it? Why or why not? What does this outfit tell you or more importantly not tell you?

 

I’m not saying you have to start putting meticulous effort into every outfit you wear to best showcase your own character, but next time you happen to be at the theatre or are watching a fashion show, take a moment to consider how the performers are dressed. Ultimately, our outward appearance is only one small facet of a much more complicated person inside, but costumers deserve credit for the amazing work they put into their pieces which represent many parts of the person wearing them.

Tanning to the Top: Cultural Appropriation in the Pop Music Industry

From Ariana Grande to Rita Ora, Catherine Mullner discusses how selecting parts of Black culture and then denying Black women the right to their own heritage has become the most lucrative marketing scheme in pop music today

Image(s): purepeople.com

 

Author’s Note: Before I begin discussing the damaging effects of cultural appropriation by pop stars, I would like to first acknowledge my bias and position as the writer. I am writing this from the position of a Caucasian woman who has not felt the hateful racism of our Euro-American society. I will never understand what it is like to be hated because of my skin, but I can only hope to stand by your side, and recognise the issues at hand. Furthermore, I want to recognise that it is easier to criticise women than men in our society that relies on sexism to maintain social order. I have used examples of female pop artists to discuss cultural appropriation, as they seem to visibly appropriate Black culture more. However, male pop artists also appropriate Black culture, especially in their work and public persona. Male pop artists, producers, and managers need to be held accountable as well, especially as they often hold more power within the pop music industry. I hope through discourse like this, there will be more room for Black men and women to exist without being degraded by white colonial standards. Everyone deserves the space to create without fear. Thank you.

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It’s been often thought that a little tan is healthy. You want that summer glow, that sun-kissed skin (it’s always a hot girl summer, right)! After all, what does a tan say? To many, it’s been associated with being “adventurous” and “experienced”.

 

Even if you’re not told to become that perfect shade of “sun-kissed goddess” every day, you can still feel the not so subtle reinforcement everywhere you go. Tanning shops as common as Starbucks, being told by your aunt that you look “tired” and “grey” (thanks, Linda). Yet, nothing pushes the Euro-American narrative that excessively tanning will enhance your attractiveness or “sexiness” than in pop stars. We often see pop stars in concert or in music videos, commanding the stage like they've been given the right by Zeus himself, and we think: “I want to be them. I want to be confident. I want to be noticed. I want to be brave.”

 

Yet, underneath this layer of confidence and ease that surrounds some pop stars, is the question of the ethics of their rise to the top. The truth is, looking at mega pop stars in the pop music industry today unveils a horrifically common pattern of appropriating and exploiting Black culture for monetary gain. Not all pop stars engage in cultural appropriation, however, to be blind to the fact that those who do have incredibly huge followings and influence would be reckless. This is an issue that needs to be addressed and goes far beyond a tan.

 

Let’s take a look first at the clearest offender, Ariana Grande. With three American Music Awards, one Brit Award, and a Grammy under her belt (besides other accolades), she can be declared one of the most successful female pop artists in the 21st century. Yet, one can not ignore the blatant appropriation of aspects of Black culture Grande invokes, and more importantly when she evokes them.

 

Grande’s first album, Yours Truly, debuted in 2013; this features Grande on the cover with her signature Nickelodeon red hair, and an adorable pink dress. Now hot in the pop music scene, Grande then released her sophomore and junior albums, My Everything and Dangerous Woman, respectively. In trying to switch Grande’s image from her Nickelodeon counterpart Cat Valentine to something more “mature”, Grande begins deep tanning and plumping her lips as she also dons more risque outfits -- all now a key part of her image. Next to Nicki Minaj at the 2016 MTV Music Awards, she is actually darker than Nicki Minaj, a Trinidadian-American woman.

 

If you look at her more recent album covers such as Thank U, Next, you will see Grande considerably darker than she naturally is. Ariana Grande, as well as other pop artists like Rita Ora, Iggy Azalea, Madison Beer, and more, have called out for cultural appropriation, or more specifically, “blackfishing”. This is specifically when a non BAME or POC man or woman alters his or her appearance, whether intentionally or not, to characteristics more traditional of African beauty. Before we discuss the problems blackfishing perpetuates for Black men and women in Euro-American society, I think it is important to analyze the correlation between appearing “mature”, and appearing Black. Why does Euro-American society deem culturally appropriating Black culture “sexy”?

 

Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Initiative on Gender and Justice Opportunity have released a 2020 study detailing this association. Titled Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias, this study by Dr. Jamilia J. Blake and Rebecca Epstein, J.D., proves their theory of adultification bias.

 

As Blake writes, “This bias is a stereotype in which adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, devoid of any individualised context”.

 

In their 2020 study, Blake and Epstein’s focus group findings found that in their study with Black women and girls aged 12-60 all routinely experienced adultification bias. As demonstrated in their report, this has led Black girls to experience, “...harsher treatment and higher standards for Black girls in school…” which will shape their self-esteem in adult life. Blake and Epstein also discussed negative stereotypes mapped onto Black girls from an extremely young age, including such stereotypes as the “angry Black woman”, the “moody Black woman”, and what most pop stars benefit from today, the “hypersexualised Black woman”.

 

Participants in the focus group discussed how from an early age they were assumed to be “...less innocent than their white peers”. This came in the form of school employees and peers hypersexualising them, assuming they were already sexually active from an inappropriately young age.

 

It was noted that in a discussion with the participants, many of them, “...traced the roots of hypersexualisation to the United States’ legacy of slavery and racism…”. The echo of racism can still be heard not just in the United States, but in many Western European countries that once thrived off of slave trading. Ultimately, this comes down to the public commodification of Black women and girls. Perceiving Black girls as older than they are makes it easier for society to objectify and sexualise them for their own gain, and whether many pop stars realise it or mean to, they are perpetuating this degradation.

 

So, let’s return to Ariana Grande five shades darker today than she was in 2013. Let’s go even further, and look at Rita Ora, an Albanian born English pop star, wearing braids while telling Wendy Williams on her show in 2016 that “she might as well be [Black]”. Let’s take a good look at Madison Beer sporting an extreme tan and newly plumped lips, Iggy Azalea using AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) to create a “baddie” rapper aesthetic.

 

Then, I would like to turn your attention to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community’s 2020 report:

 

“One in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18”.

 

I want you to read that again. One in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Not that “they might be”, or “there is a high chance”. They will. This means 25% of Black women in the United States will have experienced the trauma of sexual assault before they get their drivers’ licenses, go to prom, or graduate high school.

 

I want to clarify before we continue: I am not blaming these pop stars for these statistics. However, what I am trying to display is how these celebrities (and more importantly, their management team and producers) are allowing for a wide-scale perpetuation of the issues of racial commodification and degradation at the expense of Black women and girls. When these artists don an inappropriate amount of tan and when they misappropriate AAVE, they send two messages: that it is okay to appropriate Black culture, and that Black women’s culture is a public commodity to be used whenever they please. As Wanna Thompson, a freelance journalist who sparked debate on Twitter about blackfishing and cultural appropriation put it best:

 

“Black is cool, unless you’re actually black.”

 

Women are told to take up less space, to be smaller. Black women, in our post-colonial Euro-American society, are told to leave the room. To not exist. As these pop artists take intimate parts of Black men and women’s culture that do not belong to them, they effectively push them out of the conversation. There is no way to directly ring up Ariana Grande and her management while writing this and personally read her this out loud, however by recognising the problem here, we already are on the road to change.

 

Everyone has the choice to recognise their own bias, recognise their own privilege, and respect other people’s culture and boundaries. Although it is often publicised and perpetuated by Western Euro-American pop culture that it is acceptable to operate within a post-colonial mindset, I hope with further discussion on topics such as this people will learn to recognise and step outside of this thought process. No one can ever truly escape the racist context of our current reality, but you can actively fight against it for a future of equality and respect.

 

To end, I would like to share with you a new favourite song of mine. Princess Nokia, an LGBTQIA+ rapper who is a proponent of intersectional feminism, released “Mine” in 2017, a song of empowerment that celebrates Black women’s natural hair. In 2019 Ariana Grande released “7 rings”, which featured a very similar chorus to Nokia’s “Mine”. An ironic act of plagiarism, today “7 rings” remains one of Grande’s most popular songs, and has almost two billion streams on Spotify.

 

Recognising Black artists' originality and work, especially when they are often degraded for drawing on their own culture, is the start to tearing down this colonial mindset within artistic industries in North America and Western Europe.

 

Give Black artists the room to create and the room to speak. Write a response to my article, and get me off the podium. I am here to listen and to learn, not to lead the conversation.

 

All I know for sure is that the world is formed through art.

Roundtable Discussion - Issue 2 

How should we treat classic works of art that are not politically correct?

Griffin: So, obviously one of the prime reasons that we love and support the arts is the unfiltered creative freedom that allows for unique self-expression and topical social commentary. However, some of the most beloved pieces of art in our culture, having recently been put under a microscope, have been shown to be quite ‘un-PC’, and indeed many think these works should be left as relics of the past. How do you think we should handle seminal pieces of art, be it theatre, music, literature, or film, that clash with our modern idea of political correctness?

 

Kailee: I was just having this conversation. It's so hard to know to say because it's such an ongoing debate. I don't know if I have an answer, but the conclusion we came to in the discussion I was having was that it depends on what the context is. But we should still be able to have that art as long as we're prefacing it with ‘This was never ok, but times have changed’.

 

Isabelle: Yeah, I also think that it's really important that we don't write off all things that aren't necessarily in line with what we believe. Art is meant to evoke something, and if we can use it just to start a conversation as opposed to perpetuating things that are harmful and hurtful, that would be in line with the purpose of art and powerful in a way.

 

Catherine: Yeah, I was gonna say as well, when I was researching for my article, which is mainly on the appropriation of black culture within the music industry and how it goes not unnoticed but accepted, and then how that impacts the actual people, POC women, in our Western European society, and I came across this term of ‘restorative justice’, in which you can't cancel everything that's incorrect, and there's a lot of stuff that needs to be revised. However, if we immediately cancel it, then we can’t overcome it. So restoring that justice and taking this thing that was very awful or that was hurting, and actually making it something to celebrate for the people who were being hurt by it

 

K: Restoring it rather than erasing it.

 

G: Along with that, do you feel that it's okay to take an artist's work out of context? For example, a musical that has some racially insensitive undertones but songs that everyone loves, can you take the songs by themselves or do they need to be complete with the show itself as well?

 

Sarah: I would say the context is incredibly important. I think that as nice as it is to be able to appreciate things on their own, you don't always realize the connotations of what you're hearing unless you know the context of it. But then I suppose, in the opposite way, I think there are some pieces that we could take out of circulation without it massively harming the arts world because they do more harm than good. There are pieces that have better, more equal alternatives to them, and yet we still do the originals because they're ‘traditional’. And while I understand saying ‘we did this at one point’, there has to come a time, I think, that we say,’ well, we used to do this but now we have this slightly better, more politically correct version, and we should switch to this’.

 

G: Do you think in that way, though, it's important to know kind of where we're coming from, in the sense of if something's an alternative version, it's important to see the original as well to give context?

 

S: I suppose it depends on the medium. It doesn't necessarily have to be seeing the original or hearing the original or reading it, it can be just having an explanation of it. So, just because I know about musical theater, I’ll use Anything Goes as an example, which has very racial undertones and has been rewritten about 1100 times, and they've never quite managed to remove the racial insensitivity from it. However, they did a really recent version where they did manage to actually do a good job with that. In the director’s note, they said ‘in the original production, there was this racist like thing that went on. However, we feel that this is no longer necessary to society. It's not funny, it's not relevant. So we've taken out but we're letting you know they used to be there’. I think that's a happy medium because that way, people don't have to experience it, but they still know why changes have been made.

 

G: So for example, with the recent revival of Carousel, they took out a line from the show that essentially said, as an abused wife talks about her husband, ‘It is possible for someone to hit you and not hurt at all’. This is obviously very problematic for a number of reasons. But a lot of people felt that taking the line out fundamentally changed her feelings towards him. How do you think people should go about editing original works in that way, while still staying true to the original intent of the characters and of their relationships?

 

I: I think that's a really challenging question. When I think of a line like that, I think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because there's a really long monologue, where, I think it's Helena, she goes on for 40 some-odd lines about how she wants to be a spaniel and she wants to follow this man, and whatever he does, she would accept and if he was to hurt her, it would be like love. And that's a really essential part of her character, because without it, you don't really understand just how desperate she is for love and admiration, which is problematic in and of itself, but also it comments, I think, on how far we've come in our view of women, that they don't need love and admiration to be valuable and to be worth something. And I feel like if you were to take that out, you would be losing a really major piece of her character that sets her up for the rest of the story.

 

K: I was going to say, it depends on the author’s intention, and also if the character changes at all. When you're saying jokes in musicals or movies or whatever that should never have been funny but were only there for the purpose of a cheap joke. That's a lot different than Helena's character being that desperate. Is it the show saying that she should be or is her character actually that desperate?

 

G: How do you decide then, because humor is incredibly subjective, who is allowed to draw the line of what's funny, what isn't funny, what was never funny, what's always going to be funny? How do you go about figuring out where the line is between insensitivity and comedy that's tastefully pushing the boundaries?

 

C: It feels like an issue of translation where it's not going culture to culture and language to language, but where you're going throughout different time periods as well. And often you'll have it where jokes will be translated, for example, there's one play read for an Italian audience and its culture that the jokes are relevant, they understand, and then it gets translated to a British audience to make it funny for them. So in that sense, I feel that it’s understandable as long as you are keeping the message of the characters. So we go back to the example where the woman says, ‘Oh, It is possible for someone to hit you and not hurt at all’. If you can demonstrate her character throughout action and motion, and as well costuming, is really important. I know often if she wears red, she's passionate. But you know, there's costuming and things that can be done to show her desperation without this line that I feel like is a little bit damaging for especially a young female audience.

 

K: How do we portray that character in Carousel versus how Helena is portrayed in what's essentially a comedy? She's meant to be desperate, we understand no one's really looking up to her in any kind of way. So I feel like it is a slightly different situation, whereas that line about the hitting is almost supposed to come off as romantic.

 

G: What do you think the limits of an author should there be, in the sense that, if an author writes a work when they're 25, and all these years later they're 80, pushing 90, obviously times have changed quite a bit and the cultural views of what's appropriate have changed quite a bit. If an author says ‘Hey, I wrote this and I want to keep it the same’, but everyone else doesn't want it to be the same because the times have changed, how do you create a middle ground?

 

S: I suppose that's about public ownership of art, though, isn't it? It's like when you put a piece out into society for other people to react to, to appreciate, to be part of, do you then own that work anymore, or does that become public property? I think a lot of art as a whole wouldn't work if people couldn't interpret things differently. I think especially with different directors and creatives for plays or for movies or for shows. They all bring their own artistic style. I think it's really, really difficult to be any form of author or creator and have 100% ownership over your own work. So as much as you can say, ‘I want it to stay like this’, somebody will always be there to take it and make it into something else.

 

I: I guess the challenge to that, and not to you Sarah, but to the idea as a whole, is that when an author writes a book, no one takes the book and makes it their own. You might interpret it differently but you're not going to take the book and rewrite it, because that would be plagiarism and very illegal. So how is a play different from a novel or different from, I don't know, an article written many years ago?

 

G: So an interesting point along those lines, Samuel Beckett, when he wrote Waiting for Godot, very specifically put that no females are allowed to play the roles in the show, they are all meant to be played by men and that is how they have to be done, forever. There have been cases where companies have actually sued his estate to let women play the roles, and those that have won have had to read out a statement prior to the play saying, ‘This is not how Samuel Beckett wanted it. He thinks this is a bad idea. However, because of x, y, and z, we are doing this’. Do you think more companies should be allowed to challenge an author's original intent, based on their ideas for their productions?

 

K: I think that's hilarious. And honestly, a kind of good middle ground, similar to what we were talking about with Anything Goes. I think it is pretty important to state, ‘This was the original intention’, because, without that statement, you don't know how much anything could have changed from the original work. But also, there's so many artists and authors whose works are now public domain, so anyone can do anything with them. However, they're famous for not wanting things interpreted a certain way. And I just think of so many people who are probably rolling in their grave having seen the adaptations and stuff going on now. But we understand as a culture that we're allowed to change things, to some extent.

 

Ella: Not necessarily my own views but potentially a contrasting point. I think we also have to be careful of not falling into the trap of positive discrimination in that are these theatre productions wanting women to play the role because they think it would bring something new to the production and because they think women would generally do a good job, or are they doing it for the sake of equality, almost potentially to make a point of going against the original creator's wishes. In the same way, when Doctor Who came out as having the first female doctor and people were really angry about it, I can actually see why because there are earlier episodes of Doctor Who that very clearly state that the doctor when he regenerates cannot change gender. So are the BBC bringing this in to make a point about having a female doctor and saying women could play this part just as well or are they doing this intentionally against original episodes just to make a point of being PC?

 

G: Yes, and that's a really great point you make. For example, the new revival of 1776 that's coming to Broadway is going to be all non-male identifying actors playing traditionally male roles. Indeed you could even make the argument with Hamilton as well with the racial aspect- these people are playing real-life characters or real-life figures, however, obviously they're not portraying them how they originally were. Where is the line with that and what arguments can you make for and against that?

 

E: Hamilton has come into a lot of trouble for exactly that reason. That the minority actors have been specifically put into roles that in reality were slave traders, which is kind of missed out at the musical really. But that to me says that those actors have been put in there, not necessarily because they're not good, every single person in my opinion and that original cast is fantastic. But it does make you think, have they been put in there specifically to make a point. And actually, is that offensive to them, protecting a black actor into the role of someone that historically was a slave trader.

 

G: And where the line between it being offensive and reclaiming is, and I think that's something that can change with every actor, with every playwright, and with every play. There's not necessarily a general rule of thumb for what the proper etiquette should be for that kind of thing. And in the same way with that, as I mentioned the 1776 revival, obviously the roles written for women in the last hundreds of years, have obviously changed quite a bit in the last 50 or so years just based on societal norms and how society views women. In terms of Shakespearean roles, for example, or anything from hundreds of years ago, even Victorian- how do you think that our current views of women should affect the portrayal of those women? I ask as the only guy in the room.

 

C: I think it's interesting- Oxford a few years back did a production of Frankenstein, but instead of Dr. Frankenstein as a man, he was a woman and then the monster was a woman as well I believe, which I think is quite interesting, because when you look at Mary Shelley's original thought process behind Frankenstein, I kind of think that Percy Shelley is Dr. Frankenstein and she's a monster and she feels guilty about the affair and all that so there are these intentions behind it but I think it boils down to that we hold these traditional plays and authors and musicals, but it's about actually writing female roles as well because on the one hand, yes, a woman can be Doctor Who, a woman could be George Washington, but it's making these productions a place where it's not just slapping a woman on and saying ‘we're equal now’. It's saying ‘no, write these roles for women, for non-binary people, and who aren't traditionally portrayed’. But I think with race, [...] The Great premiered on Hulu, with Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, and that was a cast where it was very diverse, and to me, it didn't matter because race didn't play a role in that. I mean obviously, it did in history, but in the actual plot, it doesn't play a role. So I think if race, or being female, doesn’t necessarily have this huge plotline to it, it shouldn't matter- I think it adds a whole new layer and idea to the play. Even playing Rocky Horror Picture Show, that's fascinating too and casting that, but again it is up for interpretation, but I think just writing roles for women, giving roles to women.

 

G: Of course! There's been a large argument recently because the Fleming estate has come out and said James Bond will never be played by a woman because James Bond is, in fact, a male character, and there have been two camps on that. A) It was written a long time ago, people want times to change, similar to Doctor Who, there totally could be a James Bond woman. Or the other camp, which is that James Bond shouldn't be a woman, you should just write new roles for women that are comparable in their depth and prestige. What do you think are the arguments for both sides? Which one is more legitimate? Not necessarily just in this example, but with any examples where it comes to that sort of thing.

 

K: The first thing that comes to mind for me is that both are somewhat legitimate. I know that's not an easy answer to give, but I feel like the reason why it might be legitimate to change those characters is that you have these franchises that have been running for decades, if not hundreds of years, in the case of more classic literature. Most of the characters are men, most iconic characters like James Bond are men, because they were written so long ago. And so to have that kind of icon as a female or just somehow different than intended is kind of the subversion, but at the same time, obviously, it will be way more legitimate to just create them more diverse in the first place. But that's only going to start changing now. We can't go back and change that from 50 years ago.

 

S: I was going to say, I think it really depends on the character, especially in this situation, just because (keeping James Bond as an example), James Bond was created to be the ultimate dream man for men to look up to. And if you flip to the role and made it a woman and had a woman do the degrading, horrible things that James Bond does to women to men, men would lose their shit- it wouldn't go well. So I think it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis of swapping some innate qualities about this character and adding something to it, does it add something to the message we are trying to get across about them, or is it just like a whimsy thing. There are some characters who it doesn't matter their gender, it doesn't matter their sexuality, it doesn't matter their race, but there are some where it's a sort of key, innate quality of that character, that one of those features is very important to how that character is and who they are as a person.

 

K: That's that whole debate about Ghostbusters. That remake, when it came out, they very much purposed to have only the male characters be objectified, and that caused such a storm on the internet. I wouldn't have wanted to be involved with it, but from an outside perspective, it was fascinating seeing people's responses because some people were so on board, some people were so against it.

 

G: Yes, for sure. And just to start to wrap things up, what is the difference between amateur, collegiate, whether it be theater, writing filmmaking, versus professional where you're making a profit on it? Do you think that should come into play in terms of how much you're able to experiment, if you're trying to sell things to a wide audience or if you're just making something for yourself?

 

I: I think it's an interesting argument that there's a difference between the two because when I think of a collegiate production of a musical, let's say, you affect a smaller number than a Broadway production, but at the same time, on a proportional scale, you might be affecting the same number. If it's 10 people out of 100 at a university or 100 people out of 100,000 people, out of 100 million- the proportions don't necessarily mean that it's less impactful so I don't actually know if that makes a difference, even though it might just be in your community. For example, we did Spring Awakening and there are a lot of things in that show that are problematic. A lot of things, and you have to look at them and address them and use them to talk about it, and we chose to do that show and not write off the things that are problematic but rather choose to face them. We didn't remove anything. I would assume the same policy applies for Broadway shows, you don't remove something but you use it as a foundation.

 

G: Does anyone have any final thoughts about anything we've discussed.

 

Vanessa: I’ll have to agree with Isabelle’s point. I think it's definitely on a case-by-case basis, but also bearing in mind sort of the context in which the production was written and made. I think this is kind of a gray area because the second that you know you start monitoring or ‘oh, this is problematic. This is problematic.’ Where do you draw the line? You definitely risk falling into some sort of censorship. Of course, I believe people should exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression. Unless it's hate speech, but I think that some of the greatest artworks or productions that were ever made were subversive in their time, but maybe now they're considered legendary. Or a lot of works that were considered iconic back then are super problematic now. So I think that it's all about understanding the context.

 

G: Definitely. Anyone else have any wrap-up thoughts? I know I've thrown a lot at you guys, and they've been really awesome answers. I'm actually really happy with this, but does anyone have any last bits?

 

E: I just want to say really quickly, I think the general thought for me on this whole topic, is that if people are changing things to make them more PC, we should be doing it because that's what's right, not to please a certain audience or to make someone happy or just not get in trouble for doing something offensive. I think that means you shouldn't be changing things depending on the audience, you should be changing it if you think that that's what's right to do. And if you're choosing to not change it for a particular reason, it should also be because that's what's right to do, whether that's because you think it's right to educate people, whether you think it's right to gesture toward the past versions, or whatever the reason may be. You should never be making something PC just to please people but rather than what’s morally right.

Muse of the Month

In this monthly feature, Vanessa Silvera highlights a figure in the arts who inspires her

Image(s): Wikipedia

 

My muse is… Doris Salcedo

 

She is… Born in 1958, Doris Salcedo is a Colombian-based visual and installation artist. Her work primarily engages with Colombia’s recent political history as well as her own experiences, in particular in relation to the country’s ongoing civil war between the government, guerrilla groups, and drug cartels fighting for territorial control. Over the past five decades, the conflict has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian murders and disappearances, and more than five million internally displaced persons. Among the disappeared were members from her own family, exemplifying the inseparability between politics and life. She resides in its capital, Bogotá, noting how the city’s charged atmosphere allows for the production of art. She employs everyday materials including, but not limited to, household furniture, textiles, concrete, glass, and rose petals. Key themes addressed in her work are trauma, loss, and mourning, both in an individual and a collective sense. She aims to commemorate the victims of the conflict, serving as a form of closure to their families and communities while also serving as a stark reminder of the horrors of warfare.

 

I first learned about her when… I first heard about Salcedo as I was doing research on possible dissertation topics. I have been curious about modern and contemporary Latin American art since it has been gaining a lot of traction lately. Nonetheless, academia has been a little slower to catch up. As much as I love the curriculum offered by the University’s School of Art History, it is admittedly quite Eurocentric and I was ready to broaden my horizons. Since Latin American art is quite broad in scope, I decided to hone in on Colombian art and, from there, I came across Salcedo’s work. Immediately, I recognized an image of her installation titled Istanbul, the one with the stacked chairs, but had no idea she was the mastermind behind it. While I have never had the privilege of experiencing her work firsthand (and hope to do so as soon as travel becomes safer), solely learning about them has been incredibly moving. Not only do her works function as a record of Colombian history, but she also treats them as ‘acts of mourning.’ By acknowledging the past, society can collectively heal from the trauma inflicted upon them.

Salcedo, Shibboleth, 2007. Image(s): Wikipedia

I am obsessed because… Part of the reason I am fascinated with Salcedo’s work is because, being of Colombian descent, the issues she raises hit close to home. However, you obviously do not have to be Colombian in order to enjoy or feel the power behind her works. Through the use of personal and national context, she evokes universal themes formative of the human experience. Life and death, forgetting and memory, trauma, and healing are all pervasive in her work, even if at first glance it may not seem so. For those who appreciate art for its aesthetic qualities, her eye-catching and visually striking works, especially her ‘memory’ sculptures and installations, will not disappoint. But the only way to understand why I’m obsessed is to check out the work yourself.

 

My favorite work by her is… This is a tough one, but I would have to go with Shibboleth (2007). Installed in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, it consists of a 167 metre-long fissure running along the ground, marking the first time any artist has physically altered the space. While simple in design and execution, its ambiguity in meaning lends to several different interpretations. The crack could represent a blow to the very foundations of the museum or the art establishment, or internal divisions within her homeland as a byproduct of the conflict. Or it could take on a more postcolonial reading, representing a history of racism and the racial wealth gap between the Global North and the Global South. When the show came to a close, the flooring was restored, but a mark remains, which I thought was just brilliant and further heightened the work’s effect.

Salcedo, Untitled, 2003. Image(s): MCA Chicago

 

The work by her you have to check out ... For those of you unfamiliar with Salcedo, I would recommend starting with perhaps her best-known installation, Untitled, she contributed to the 8th International Istanbul Biennial. Conceptualized in 2003, 1,550 wooden chairs are piled atop one another in between two unremarkable buildings in the heart of the Turkish metropolis. Four years later, her influence can be seen in Ai Weiwei’s installation Fairytale, which also used chairs to produce a memory effect as a commentary on Chinese displacement. According to Salcedo, she was “reminded of mass graves. Of anonymous victims. I think of both chaos and absence, two effects of wartime violence… And in a situation of war, we all experience it in much the same way, either as a victim or perpetrator. So I’m not narrating a particular story. I’m just addressing experiences.”