Thinking about Black Panther over the past few days reminded me about another popular cultural event that also made me consider the importance and representation and how easy it can be to overlook.
|Christ-like figure by Balkenhol. |
Photo credit: Amy Burge
Balkenhol's work is impressive, and I did enjoy the technical skill on display. However, walking around the figures, something was bothering me about the kinds of figures that were on display - more specifically, the kinds of bodies that were not on display.
The blurb accompanying the exhibition was keen to highlight Balkenhol's emphasis on "the idea of the common man". It reads: "Balkenhol creates archetypical figures with no individuality, common men and women [...] the ordinary citizen as a solitary being, relaxed yet inscrutable." The stated implication is that the viewer is able to see themselves in the sculptures, because they function as 'everyman' figures.
"Balkenhol’s references include art history, film, photography, society, religion, culture, death, sex, animals, iconic and legendary images, etc. Any aspect that has a bearing on the formation of the contemporary human being finds a place in his repertoire of ideas and reflections. And yet there is a common denominator in his creative process, in his thinking and in his work in general: man today. Balkenhol attaches the utmost importance to the idea of the common man"
That's a fair idea, and I'm sure it's well intentioned. But have you spotted the problem yet? All of Balkenhol's sculptures are white, and most of them are men.
|Virgin and male figure by Balkenhol. |
Photo credit: Amy Burge
Yet, at the start of Black History month in the USA, LGBT history month in the UK and, of course, the release and success of Black Panther, this really jarred with me. I'm increasingly impatient when it comes to diversity in representation because, as the reaction to Black Panther has ably shown - representation matters.
This is also a problem for our teaching - I've already written about the need for diversity in the curriculum, not least as a way to equip students to deal with a dangerous world. The kind of uncritical thinking that allows Balkenhol to label whiteness as universal is the same thinking that continues to inform ideas within English Literature about the canon, and value, and how we choose the texts we share with students. And as Black Panther has shown, when we allow different stories to emerge, we can start to read everything differently.
Black Panther box office statistics are from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Panther_(film)#cite_note-BOM-4
Read more about the exhibition here: http://cacmalaga.eu/2018/01/19/stephan-balkenhol-5/