Monday, February 26, 2018

Art and representation, medieval and modern

Last weekend I, along with three friends and hundreds of thousands of people around the world, gladly contributed my $15 to the 704 million dollars made by Black Panther in its opening days. It's long overdue, but I was still overjoyed to see representations of black Africans in the most mainstream of Hollywood movie genres, especially women of colour. Sometimes it takes seeing something ground-breaking presented so nonchalantly to remind you that the status quo is anything but normal.

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.

A woman wearing yellow looks up at a large wooden painted sculpture of a man with a cut under his right breast.
Christ-like figure by Balkenhol.
Photo credit: Amy Burge
There's currently an exhibition in the Centro de Arte Contemporanéo de Malaga of work by German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol. His work in this exhibition comprises carved wooden figures of various sizes - some table-top figures, others towering over the room. Some of the influences were evident - this Christ-like figure was displayed next to a woman of similar size cradling a tiny model of the man and wearing Virgin Mary blue. Others were remininscent of ancient deities or twenty-first century celebrities.

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.

It continues:

"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.

Female figure dressed in deep blue holds a small model of a man in her arms
Virgin and male figure by Balkenhol.
Photo credit: Amy Burge
For a white man to project white masculinity and label this 'common' is not perhaps surprising. Linguistically, culturally, politically, men have stood in for women and for men of colour at every level. As a medievalist researching English texts, it's very common for men's voices and experiences to smother women's voices and texts (although not always, as this post on Margery Kempe and religious women's writing demonstrates). The idea of an 'everyman' is even medieval; The Summoning of Everyman, the allegorical morality play referred to now as Everyman, dates from the late fifteenth century.

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:

Read more about the exhibition here:

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