Gazing upon the Western Gaze

First published in “Beyond the Western Gaze” By Zohra Soorma, 29/06/2020

Museums and art galleries serve as fundamental institutions of the cultural education given to citizens, becoming ‘national’ centres. Many schools have day trips to these national educational centres with the aim of exposing children to the history of people in Britain. Such history and individuals present within museums and galleries are in fact subject to the western gaze. It is common knowledge that many artefacts collected and brought into these British establishments were stolen from their home nations, simply to be goggled at by white citizens and described as ‘fascinating’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘weird’, othering everything about differing cultures and customs. Although informative to an extent, museums and art galleries often feed the western gaze to visitors, educating society on far-away oddities rather than showcasing a collective and inclusive world.

Of course, amidst various narrow-minded collections and curations activist artists are creating and displaying work to properly educate visitors seeking information on history and societies in the West. Inclusive Art Gallery is a recently launched Instagram-based platform displaying art by ethnic minority artists or with ethnic minority sitters.  The featured artworks mould a new image of Western society, including and celebrating an array of cultures present in the West and calling out racist colonial habits of the art-world. This blogpost is in collaboration with Inclusive Art Gallery, highlighting 2 artists of whom have successfully diverted the gaze of the Western eye, forcing the reality of history. The lived experiences of many more ethnic minority artists and sitters can be found @inclusiveartgallery .

Faith Ringgold

Gazing upon the Western Gaze
Faith Ringgold, #20: Die, American People Series #20: Die

This mural-sized piece titled ‘#20: Die’ is part of Ringgold’s ‘American People’ series in response to the 1960s Race Riots. The piece is disturbing and moving. New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired this piece, first displaying it near busy escalators to make the disturbing truth unavoidable. The piece has since been moved to hang alongside Picasso.

Ringgold wanted people to understand that the riots were “not just poor people breaking into stores.” They were about white flight, urban blight, dying industries. They were about, she said, “people trying to maintain their position, and people trying to get away. Ringgold explains that “everybody was involved” during the riots, blood spatters evenly across an interracial group of men, women, and children, suggesting that no one is free from this struggle. Their clothing—smart dresses and business attire—implies that a well-off professional class is being held accountable in this scene of violent chaos.

The children grasping and terrified at the centre of the scene creates an emotional reaction as to what the future will become. Unfortunately, not much has changed since the 1960s. Those children have grown up and their nightmares of continued violence are a reality. Social media is a new platform, perhaps a recreation would include a smartphone in all the subjects’ hands. This valuable resource can be empowering through sharing experiences, listening to the voices which often get silenced and educating oneself on how to stand in solidarity and productively help the movement.

Fred Wilson

Gazing upon the Western Gaze
Fred Wilson, Grey Area (Black Version), 1993, Sculptural Installation

Known for challenging colonial history within museums and galleries, Wilson reframes cultural symbols and artefacts taken out of their home countries, altering traditional interpretations. Wilson describes himself as of African, Native American, European and Amerindian descent. His mixed ancestry allows Wilson to feel the effect of the singular racial narrative in the museum and heritage sector, a facility for cultural education and discussion within society. Wilson states “My interest was not so much teaching people anything — it was switching on a switch, seeing where you are.”

This piece is titled ‘Grey Area (Black Version)’, features replicas of the renowned ancient Egyptian sculpture of Queen Nefertiti. Each of Wilson’s recreations are of a differing shade of grey, ranging from white to black. The original Nefertiti bust is a point of controversy as Germany displays the sculpture in the Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, taken out of Egypt in 1912. Wilson created this piece to be displayed at the 1993 Whitney Biennial in New York. The biennial focussed on issues of politics and identity, becoming controversial by being the first biennial of which male artists were the minority. Wilson’s piece aims to highlight the ‘Grey Area’ regarding Nefertiti’s racial identity due to her fantasied and celebrated presence as a black woman in African-American culture. Wilson succeeds in visually highlighting confusion regarding history within the museum sector, suggesting one must not blindly accept information present within museums and galleries without considering the Western gaze.

Gazing upon the Western Gaze

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