White Skin, Black Masks
This short video features a white male engaged in a series of arbitrary acts in public spaces in downtown Johannesburg whilst wearing a photostat copy of a mask made by the Fang people. An African tribe Chinua Achebe stated to be “without a doubt among the world’s greatest masters of the sculpted form.” (1) Art historian Frank Willet details this mask’s history and influence in the West as follows:
"Gauguin had gone to Tahiti, the most extraordinary individual act of turning to a non-European culture in the decades immediately before and after 1900, when European artists were avid for new artistic experiences, but it was only about 1904-5 that African art began to make its distinctive impact. One piece is still identifiable; it is a mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905. He records that Andre Derain was ‘speechless’ and ‘stunned’ when he saw it, bought it from Vlaminck and in turn showed it to Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it. Ambroise Vollard then borrowed it and had it cast in bronze… The revolution of twentieth century art was under way!" (2)
The revolution in question signalled the beginning of Cubism and ultimately of Modern art in the West: “Picasso had discovered an art which was essentially conceptual (he called it ‘raisonnable’), and Cubism emerges as a fusion of the conceptual or rational element in African art with Cézanne’s principle of ‘realisation’ of the motif.” (3)
I remember seeing a newspaper advertisement in 1995 for a prominent South African corporate entity which featured a photograph of several members of their staff and a caption that read: ‘We’ve been affirmative since 1992’. I distinctly recall that of the 6 or 7 staff featured one person was a black man and another was an Indian woman, the rest were all white. Although dated, this advert does evidence how perplexed about transformation and intimidated by the new dispensation white business was in 1994 and on the face of it continues to be today, despite staggering political, social and economic reform. Within specific South African corporate contexts the calculated use of affirmative action can, at institutional levels, be defined as the strategic masking of entrenched, white economic power with the visual signifier of politically corrected ‘blackness’. While it needn’t be said that a redesign of South Africa’s economic architecture is patently needed to ‘de-whiten’ white business and to fast-track the career trajectories and opportunities of merit designated individuals, there remain ongoing fundamental problems with implementing and facilitating this transformation.
The responsibility of white corporates is to establish black business partners that add value and experience as a means to jointly forge sustainable enterprises, but habitually this practice is strategically and unethically defined by white business as the ability to secure government favour through the political connections of specific partners and acknowledgment via the façade of empowerment. Yet simultaneously, most arguments against affirmative action and empowerment perpetuate the myth that ‘natural’ forces of progression will achieve socio-economic transformation. These are complex fields with no patent solutions and subject to the numerous vested interests and institutional policies shaping them, while White Skin, Black Masks communicates my concern with these broad issues, the context represented in the video is a fictional street-level, micro view of them.
Fanon’s essential text Black Skin, White Masks first published in 1952, in part details the descriptions of inadequacy and dependence felt by black people in a white dominated world. White Skin, Black Masks could be seen as a critical mimicry of the guilt and paranoid neurosis of post-apartheid mentalities within sectors of the white minority formally in power. The video shows a white male’s strategic masking of his race with a symbolic ‘blackness’ (of cultural and historical importance) in several public spaces in downtown Johannesburg:
"The postcolony is made up not of one coherent ‘public space’. Nor is it determined by any single organising principle. It is rather a plurality of ‘spheres’ and arenas, each having its own separate logics when operating in certain specific contexts: hence the postcolonial ‘subject’ mobilises not just a single ‘identity’, but several fluid identities…" (4)
The act of masking, central to White Skin, Black Masks, is a critical assesment of the spatially-specific, and associated racial paranoia born of an inherent inadequacy and fear within sectors of the South African white minority. The employment of the Fang mask functions as a metaphoric self de-whitening by the corporate white male for strategic ends that mimics the institutional uses of affirmative action and black empowerment detailed above. This mask is a form of camouflage, but it is also a contested, loaded object defined by a problematic history of appropriation and abuse: “I have always admired people working in France at the turn of the twentieth century in their ability to appropriate African iconography, the masks and sculptures, into the formal language of their work without having to deal with the loaded questions which follow…” (5) But ironically the act of masking is rendered void by the Fang mask’s white hue, denying its strategic use and resulting in the white male in the video, despite wearing the mask, retaining the racial signifier he is trying to conceal: “The white man is sealed in his whiteness”. (6)
Mask made by the Fang
Artist and date unknown
© Societe des Amis du Musee de L’Homme
Pablo Picasso : 1907
© The Museum of Modern Art, New York