The controversy over the People of Colour exhibition at Mercy Pictures shows how alt-right ideas can thrive in irony-steeped artistic environments, writes Amal Samaha.
On Saturday, a gallery show in Auckland ended. The exhibition featured rows upon rows of flags, each on a relatively uniform rectangular frame, set in neat rows.
All apparently normal, except for something that became increasingly obvious.
There seemed to be a lot of swastikas.
Really, a lot of swastikas. Of 150 or so flags, 20 were Nazi symbols, and others represented more obscure hateful ideologies. Each wall had at least a few swastikas, many positioned provocatively as if to ask “are these not the same as the flags beside them?”
In each case, I hope the audience’s answer was “no, one of these is a fucking swastika”.
The People of Colour show – created by artists Jerome Ngan-Kee, Jonny Prasad and Teghan Burt, also the co-directors of Mercy Pictures, the gallery where it was shown – was clearly out to court controversy. And they got it: on the first night the show was vandalised, and the Mercy Pictures Instagram was quickly inundated with criticism.
On Tuesday, Mercy Pictures’ other directors issued a statement which stopped short of an apology. It noted that Mercy Pictures’ “wider family” contains many people of marginalised identities, and called allegations of fascism “offensive and untrue”.
So what caused such outrage? Let’s go back to the exhibition itself, where among the many, many swastikas were other far right symbols: some obvious, such as a sign saying “it’s okay to be white”, and others more obscure, such as the Sonnenkreuz, Sonnenrad, Vichy French and Spanish Falangist flags. In fact, it was hard to think of a fascist flag that wasn’t there. Worse, these were displayed alongside the tino rangatiratanga flag, the United Tribes flag and Tūhoe’s mana motuhake, all apparently without permission from tangata whenua.
But such easy shocks are a dime a dozen for gallery shows. A swastika is a guarantee of controversy, though usually audience fears are allayed by an artist statement or write-up making some banal point about how nationalism is bad.
This, however, wasn’t the case, with People of Colour. The show’s artistic statement was anything but banal, since it was supplied by one Nina Power.
Power is a UK philosopher and former academic, and a bizarre figure to be linked to the wider ecology of the alt-right, being something of a convert from the post-modern, leftist intellectualism that the alt-right often derides. Once a committed feminist activist and scholar of philosophers like Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben, it seems that by gradually becoming involved in anti-transgender “feminist” activism, she found herself associating with progressively more right-wing figures.
Former friend and fellow academic Linda Stupart says that these days, “Nina Power is openly aligning herself with violent ‘edgelord’ alt-right men [and] transphobes, and has definitively divested herself of contemporary feminist thought.”
Power strongly rejects suggestions that she has any relationship with the alt-right or that she holds anti-transgender views.
Many took Power’s exhibition text to mean she was directly involved in the project, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Ngan-Kee, Prasad and Burt are graduates of the University of Auckland’s Elam Art School and have no apparent relationship with Power; it’s unclear exactly how much she knew about the content of the show.
But Power is only a small part of this story. Perhaps the more interesting aspect is what the show revealed about the contemporary art world.
With their obsession with shock value, censorship and “political correctness”, some of the cool kids of art can be surprisingly reactionary. Before knowing the back story, it would have been easy to assume the whole People of Colour drama was a case of a clueless gallery accidentally giving space to the alt-right. In fact it was actually a case of edgy gallery kids flirting with fascistic concepts from the start, with little help needed from their associates in the UK.
It’s in this environment of plausible deniability that alt-right ideas – and flirtations with fascism – can thrive. The People of Colour story shows how fascism can creep into academia and the art world alike, simply because both allow for extreme detachment between an author and their body of work, and convoluted, wordy justifications are par for the course.
It’s normal practice in academia to quote the works of people who were Nazis (for example, philosopher Martin Heidegger or jurist Carl Schmitt) despite their Nazism. It’s considered perfectly fine to appreciate their ideas, so long as that appreciation of their ideas doesn’t stray into admiration for their Nazism.
Similarly, in the art world it is normal to be fascinated by fascist iconography, to find its visual language useful, to use it to shock or provoke dialogue (for example, see the art of NZ-Tongan artist Benjamin Work). Too easily, though, this interest in the visual signifiers of fascism can stray into admiration – often without opposition, so long as the artist can provide a sufficiently long-winded justification. Had Mercy Pictures just done this and not made the mistake of drawing attention to themselves further by involving Power, they might well have gotten away with the whole thing.
Because fascist ideas creep into public life under a veil of plausible deniability, and because they often preempt and provoke controversy, it is very easy to characterise the outrage over events like the People of Colour show as overblown, conspiratorial or out of touch. After all, it is “just” art. They’re “just” flags. They’re “just” colours and shapes.
The German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin once suggested that fascism is partly about making politics into an artform: rendering politics as simply a game of colours and symbols. Modern internet fascists do this extremely well, from turning Pepe the frog into a Nazi meme, to flooding the internet with StoneToss comics, to making “ironic” use of alt-right hand gestures.
It seems Mercy Pictures did this by taking the most intensely political images on earth and putting them all together, as if to say “they’re just colours and symbols, do you cucks really care about this?”
Perhaps the best way to counteract situations in which fascist ideas hide behind art world bullshit is to put the politics back into art.
By challenging artworks like these we take what is held to be “apolitical” and re-politicise it. In doing so, we remove the plausible deniability that allows fascists to find a footing.
In 2020, it might not be good enough for edgy art to “explore” concepts: your art might actually have to say something worthwhile about them. It might not be enough to “provoke dialogue” – you might have to contribute to it.