What about the Black woman?
Readdressing ‘Race’ in an Otherwise ‘Neutral’ Performance
by Teresa María Díaz Nerio
Firstly, to contextualize this text and its genesis: I was invited by Stefanie Seibold to coIlaborate in her research and make a piece together on Gina Pane’s work dealing, in particular, with the video documentation of Discours Mou et Mat (1975), an action performed at De Appel gallery in Amsterdam. Stefanie was participating in the project Troubling Research: Performing Knowledge in the Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, our collaboration was in this context and resulted in two pieces: Matt und Schlapp wie Schnee, an installation presenting mutual work and Stefanie’s research on Pane and Travesti de Sangre, a performance engaging with the wound in Pane’s work and how it has been mediated and spectacularized.
In the process of analyzing Gina Pane’s actions I noticed the pervasive use of white in her performances, her constant wearing of white trousers and shirts, her use of milk and metaphors for white skin etc. My hypothesis is that the disquieting wound she often produced to herself during her live performances comes to serve as a wound to whiteness. In the following lines I will juxtapose Pane’s statement on “White Doesn’t Exist” with the ‘nude’ white woman in her action Discours Mou et Mat [DMM], the Black woman in Manet’s Olympia and lastly the only text, to my knowledge, where Pane addresses Black women’s bodies, which suggests that racialization can be read in her pieces as part of her critique of what she called “the anaesthetized society”.
In an interview Pane described her piece Le Lait Chaud (1972) (Warm Milk): “The theme was ‘White Doesn’t Exist’ and I set out to prove it. It took place in a large bourgeois apartment on whose doorstep I had placed a bottle of milk and a newspaper, as is the habit in England and America. An explanatory text had been posted in the entrance hall—in essence it concerned a glass of milk, a barman, a customer and an accidental occurrence which unveiled an anaesthetized behavioral pattern. I was in the living room dressed completely in white. Behind me there were photographic documents showing a bowl of milk with a hair in it, a daily expenses sheet, a white bathroom with traces of an abortion in the bidet, and white tombs of unknown soldiers whose bodies had evaporated. In the action I performed my auto-aggression with my back to the public. I started to cut my back with a razor blade and the blood gushed onto my shirt creating an intense paroxysm between the public and myself” (Pane, 1973).1 This description not only points towards racialization, it is also indicative of Pane’s anti-bourgeois and anti-imperialist views. Pane’s performance work stems, for example, from a reaction of outrage to the bloody spectacle of the televised Vietnam War, that is, white supremacy in all its shapes becomes a focus for criticism, and Pane does this through her poetic, political, spiritually intense and self-harming actions.
On the invitation printed by De Appel gallery for DMM, a naked white woman posing in the performance is mentioned simply as “a nude” among all the other elements/objects present in the performance. When I first saw the series of photographs (Constats) and video footage of this performance I was shocked by her use of the “nude” in the sense that the sexualized stereotype of the naked white woman, reproduced in this piece, was no different to any other Venus-like objectification of the female body in the history of Western European male art. In this regard, Pane referred to her criticism of traditional painting in relation to her performance Autoportrait(s) (1973): “I was criticizing women for remaining aesthetic objects in society, for not becoming conscious of themselves, for not trying to surpass their image. At the same time, I was criticizing traditional media of painting which are also aesthetic” (Pane, 1973).2 Accordingly, the naked white woman in DMM becomes “a nude”; placing her in the context of her criticism, where what remains untouched is the fact that the “nude” is actually a white woman.
When thinking about interpreting this performance Stefanie and I decided to reperform it. I forcefully rejected the idea of posing naked and of uncritically repeating Pane’s critique by exposing “a nude” and the objectification of the female body in order to critique its own exposure. Similarly, I felt uncomfortable about the idea of posing in place of the naked white woman without mentioning that I do not take whiteness for granted and that, in my eyes, a white woman does not represent women in general. So I needed to answer the question: “What about the Black woman?” In her essay ‘Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity’ (1992, 1994) Lorraine O’Grady writes: “The female body in the West is not a unitary sign. Rather, like a coin, it has an obverse and a reverse: on the one side, it is white; on the other, non-white or, prototypically, black. The two bodies cannot be separated, nor can one body be understood in isolation from the other in the West’s metaphoric construction of ‘woman’. White is what woman is; not-white (and the stereotypes not-white gathers in) is what she had better not be.”3
One of the first inspirations to resolve this uncomfortable situation was the use of images as slides, an element already present in Pane’s piece DMM. The reperformance was set-up at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, video-documented and simultaneously photographed by fashion photographer Maria Ziegelböck, just as Pane’s performances had been photographed live by commercial and fashion photographer Françoise Masson. There was no audience. Some of the chosen images for slides were Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), George Chakravarthi’s Olympia (2003) and a photograph of an ancient Roman sculpture, the Borghese Hermaphroditus or ‘Sleeping Hermaphroditus’. With Manet’s Olympia it was important for me to point out that the Black woman was there, and is there, in the shadow, but why in the shadow? In Manet’s Olympia the Black woman as the maid is standing in the dark while the naked white woman represents all that is feminine, all beauty, sexuality; the Black woman is made almost invisible, servile, subservient to the white woman, basically praising her. In Jean Genet’s play The Maids (1953) we can see a reflection of this relationship through the offering of flowers as a possible reading of Manet’s painting; Claire, one of the maids, plays Madame in her absence, she is talking to her sister Solange, the other maid: “You hate me, don’t you? You crush me with your attentions and your humbleness; you smother me with gladioli and mimosa. There are too many flowers here.” Later in the play Solange, who acts as Claire the maid, answers Claire the mistress: “Madame thought she was protected by her barricade of flowers, saved by some special destiny, by a sacrifice. But she reckoned without a maid’s rebellion. Behold her wrath, Madame”(Genet, 1953).4
Here the flowers may signify not the appreciation that the maids feel for their mistress but the desire to make her disappear, they are indeed planning to murder her. Hence the flowers are intended as a posthumous gift, not a gift of life but a gift of death. By putting themselves in her position they perform the hierarchical and demeaning experiences of their daily life: “Her joy feeds on our shame. Her carnation is the red of our shame” (Genet, 1953). Her life is indeed their death, their shadowy position in relation to their mistress closely resembles that of Laura, the maid in Manet’s painting, who functions in the chiaroscuro to contrast with Olympia’s whiteness. This does not pass unnoticed by Madame: “You’re quietly killing me with flowers and kindness. One fine day I’ll be found
dead beneath the roses” (Genet, 1953).5 Here we can see the placing of Black women and underprivileged women outside of femininity, outside the category of women.
In DMM Pane’s critique of traditional painting and the role of women as ‘aesthetic objects’ in society is amplified by a poem read by a female voice-off in French, where sexualized metaphors of her mother’s body are juxtaposed with nature. The poem employs racializing identifications, references to whiteness, by correlating natural phenomena or products, such as the Milky Way or snow and milk or cotton, with her mother’s body parts. Simultaneously the presence of the immobile and naked white woman further points towards the ‘aesthetic object’ she is meant to represent:
Te souviens tu des seins de ta mère?
Oui… ils étaient mous et mats comme de la neige…
Te souviens tu du sex de ta mère?
Oui…le jardin de ma grandmère, d’ou j’aimais regarder la voie lactée[…]
Te souviens tu des fesses de ta mère?
Oui…du coton fleuri…
Te souviens tu des cuisses de ta mère?
Oui… du lait solidifié…6
Inge Linder-Gaillard makes a connexion between Pane’s rejection of milk in Autoportrait(s) étape 3: ‘rejet’ (1973), where she gargles milk and spits it in a bowl, continuing until the milk mixes with blood. “And was it not Christ, in assuming his adult responsibilities, who rejected his earthly mother and thus her life-giving milk, and in exchange accepted his fate—his spilt blood—as the ultimate sacrifice” (Linder-Gaillard, 2001).7 Again, as in Le Lait Chaud, the milk is presented as impure by mixing it with hair/blood. Linder-Gaillard’s allusion to martyrdom in Gina Pane’s work can also be read as Pane’s self-critique and awareness of being part of an anaesthetized society, a white supremacist society, her rejection of whiteness and ‘racial purity’ is pointing towards a spiritual purification that would cleanse the anaesthetized society through her wound.
Jennifer Blessing quotes a note by Pane for Azione Sentimentale (1973): “Projection of an ‘intra’ space where the past experience of feeling between two women is interpolated by the ‘magical’ relation: mother/child which symbolizes death” (Blessing, 2001).8 I am quoting here in reference to Pane’s description of the theme of Le Lait Chaud (1972) as “White Doesn’t Exist”, and the ultimate
sacrifice and the rejection of the mother as outlined by Linder-Gaillard, which seem to converge in DMM as the mother does indeed appear as the “nude” however with a passivity resembling that of a dead body: the model only makes subtle movements to accommodate herself. A possible reading of the recurrent use of white in this piece makes me wonder whether it is not a rejection of the mother as such but a rejection of whiteness? Is the wound to whiteness and the anaesthetized society, that which separates her from the “Other” and maybe even from the other woman?
Pane’s description of Autoportrait(s) (1973): “I want it to be clear that my self-portrait is the portrait of others in general. My elements of expression are universal — they are not autobiographical. ‘Je suis les autres’.” (1973)9
So her use of white clothes during many of her performances is related to the ‘neutrality’ of the colour white. Indeed, Pane’s elements — fire, milk, blood, and pain — are familiar to us all, so she calls them universal, but the claim to be ‘neutral’ herself, or being the ‘Other’, becomes controversial, especially bearing in mind that her white privileges are erased from the equation.
It is clear that her wounds are a way to get close to that ‘Other’. “Gina Pane’s explicit attempt to transcend alienation in her performances of suffering […] the body (its gesturality) is in itself writing a system of signs that represent and translate the undefined quest for the other” (Blessing, 2001).10 Her attempts at showing that “White Doesn’t Exist” — even if the statement was not originally meant to address a discourse on ‘race’ — could be regarded as attempts to disclose white privilege and to reveal it as a construct, on the other hand she sometimes underestimates the boundaries created by the same imperial, bourgeois, white supremacist, anaesthetized society she criticizes by claiming her own universality. The only text that I have found where Pane makes any reference to racialization or to Black women is the following short text that appeared in the magazine Artitudes International, in an issue entitled Les Nègres:
“La Négresse flashée et sa rémanence Contrairement à toute attente, je réfute toute identification de lutte sociopolitique ‘blanche’ à la réalité de la rémanence du corps africain. Cette relation trasférentialle est illusoire et ne rompt en rien avec la figure despotique du racisme. Par contre, je crois en l’identification de mes révoltes en tant que relation de signe qu’est le corps; Vous n’avez jamais le corps même, vous n’avez que sa re-présentation raciste. Son origine différée, vous lui appliquez la notion du multiple et c’est au pluriel que vous lui adressez la non-communication. L’insulte au singulier n’est réservée qu’aux Blanches et par là vous signifiez la différence en tant qu’irréparable. L’espace noir tout autour de spectateur blanc est traité en zone aveugle où la constitution de son image est ressentie comme un duplicator à négresse-topique et non en partenaire sexuelle qu’enfanteraient vos fils. Le corps noir est meurtri par le narcissisme blanc privé de miroir de même que le corps l’est par le langage blanc.”11
It seems to me that this text could be a response to the introduction of the magazine by Francois Pluchart with the title Un Nègre dans la tête, where he writes: “Nègres, Nègres de toutes les insultes, de toutes les infamies et de tout les crimes, Nègres simplement parce qu’ils n’ont pas la peau blanche, Négresses parce qu’elles ont un corps, Nègres come il y a des Juifs, des Arabes, des étrangers, des putains, des homosexuels, des marginaux, des esclaves, des déviationnistes, des écrivains, sans nom, des obscurs, des déracinés, des paumés, des malades, des infirmes, mais aussi des cons.”12 My hypothesis is that she is responding to and refuting the idea that Blackness can be equated with “the ‘white’ socio-political struggle” as she clearly mentions in her text above. So it is important for me to place my previous comments within the context of this issue of Artitudes International, containing “different texts about the fact and the art of being a negro” (Pluchart, in his introduction).13 Pane’s contention that “the black body is wounded by white narcissism deprived of a mirror just as the body is by white language” ties-in with my comment on Manet’s Olympia and the position of the Black woman in it, and it also touches on the way in which her use of the body in her artistic practice is in itself politicized and made to bleed in reaction to the anaesthetized society in which she lives. She rejects the wound that “white language” produces on the body, and equates this to the situation of the Black body — “the black space surrounding the white spectator is treated as a blind spot” — and this is precisely what I mean with Laura’s presence in Manet’s painting, where she is inserted into the surroundings more as part of the scenario and less as a subject.
Pane’s “White Doesn’t Exist” and her critique of the “white language” and “white narcissism” as well as her statement that “you never have the same body; you have only its racist representation” do indeed make my hypothesis more credible. The wound that Pane inflicted on herself during her live performances is a wound to that “racist representation” of her body, of herself, of her revolts. Furthermore I believe the text La Négresse flashée et sa rémanence may also be read in relation to the ‘endurance of the African body’ as an anti-colonial statement, as solidarity with the African countries and peoples who where fighting and winning their independence in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau in the 1970s; a more political reading of Pane’s work can balance out the obsessive psychoanalytical readings by white feminists. If I concur with Gina Pane and say “White Doesn’t Exist”, this is because what exists is white supremacy, a construction of the body, to be challenged, wounded and demystified.
1 Gina Pane talks about her performance Le Lait Chaud (1972) (Warm Milk) in “Performance of Concern — Effie Stephano interviews Gina Pane,” Art and Artists (April 1973), vol. 8, no. 1, issue no. 85, 23.
2 “Performance of Concern — Effie Stephano interviews Gina Pane,” Art and Artists (April 1973), vol. 8, no. 1 issue no. 85, 26.
3 Lorraine O’Grady, Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity (1992, 1994),<http://lorraineogrady.com/writing>
4 Jean Genet, The Maids, Bernard Frechtman, trans.(London: Faber and Faber, 1953), 32, 8, & 12.
5 Ibid., 30.
6 Gina Pane,
Do you remember the breasts of your mother?
Yes, they were soft and dull like snow
Do you remember the sex of your mother?
Yes, the garden of my grandmother where I liked to watch the Milky Way […]
Do you remember the buttocks of your mother?
Yes, blossoming cotton
Do you remember the thighs of your mother?
Yes, solidified milk
7 Inge Linder-Gaillard, Stigmata, Icons and Reliquaries: Messages from St. Gina. Gina Pane (Southampton: John Hansard Gallery, Bristol: Arnolfini, 2001), 43. (She quotes Matthew 12: 46-50).
8 Jennifer Blessing, Some Notes on Gina Pane’s Wounds, ibid., 34.
9 “Performance of Concern — Effie Stephano interviews Gina Pane,” 26.
10 Jennifer Blessing, Some Notes on Gina Pane’s Wound’s, 28, 30.
11 Gina Pane, “The Negress flashes in her enduring presence: Contrary to all expectations, I refute any identification of the white socio-political struggle to the reality of the endurance of the African body. This transferential relationship is illusory and does not break in any way with the despotic figure of racism. On the contrary, I believe in the identification of my revolts as a sign relation that is the body. You never have the same body; you have only its racist representation. Its origins deferred, you apply the notion of the multiple, and it is plurally that you address to it the non-communication. The insult in its singularity is not reserved for Whites and thus you signify the difference as irreparable. The black space surrounding the white spectator is treated as a blind spot in which the constitution of its image is felt as a duplication of the Negress-topic and not as a sexual partner that gives birth to your sons. The black body is wounded by white narcissism deprived of a mirror just as the body is by the white language.” Artitudes International no. 33/38, Les Negres (June 1976-March 1977), 13. (My translation, thanks to Denise Callejas for corrections.)
12 Francois Pluchart, “A Negro in the mind: Negroes, Negroes of all the insults, of all the infamies and of all the crimes, Negroes simply because they do not have the white skin, Negresses because they have a body, Negroes like there are the Jews, the Arabs, the foreigners, the prostitutes, the homosexuals, the marginal, the slaves, the dissidents, the writers, without name, the obscure, the displaced, the losers, the sick, the disabled, but also the idiots.” Ibid., 2. (My translation.)
13 Pluchart, “differents textes sur le fait et l’art d’etre nègre,” ibid., 2. (My translation.)
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