Is racism the price we pay for representation?

Is racism the price we pay for representation?

Tschabalala Self’s sculpture was vandalised by racists who painted her skin white – symbolically erasing exactly what it was intended to represent.

Haja Marie Kanu

3 min read

large bronze sculpture by Tschabalala Self looking out to sea

A Black woman on a chair. Towering over onlookers. Poised and yet relaxed. She asks, without any words, what does it mean to take up space?

Taking a seat is a universal act of leisure and calm. I wanted to create a monumental sculpture for the public that spoke to this simple joy. The woman is strong, beautiful and self-possessed. She represents all individuals, but women in particular, who understand the power and importance of gestures that assert their right to take up space.

Tschabalala Self

Seated was commissioned by Avant Arte, launching our public art programme. To begin with, it sat at bustling Coal Drops Yard near King’s Cross Station in London. This spring, the sculpture was moved to the De La Warr Pavilion, a contemporary arts centre in Bexhill-on-Sea, where she sits overlooking the English Channel. On May 15, the sculpture was vandalised by racists who spray-painted her white in an attempt to cover her dark skin.

Seated by Tschabalala Self looks to the sea outside the De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex

The De La Warr Pavilion coordinated a community response to clean up the sculpture. Hundreds of East Sussex locals volunteered in a show of unity and solidarity. However, the artwork still needed professional restoration. Pilar Corrias, Tschabalala’s gallerist, responded as follows.

Obscene hate crimes like this demonstrate how much still needs to be done in the UK to fight racism, challenge discrimination and encourage diversity. As an artist exploring ideas about the black body (and predominantly female ones) Tschabalala Self’s work does just this. We laud Tschabalala and the De La Warr Pavilion’s gesture of involving the local community in the sculpture's restoration; significantly bringing people together in a positive act of resistance.

Pilar Corrias

Although the sculpture is inanimate, it is difficult not to interpret the act as one of racist violence. Tschabalala expressed her disappointment, but lack of surprise. It is a solemn reminder that bodies are political, space is political, art is political and Seated exists at this intersection.

Black, female – and especially Black female bodies – are often targets for abuse. Seated proudly represents the beauty of both blackness and femininity, and for these very reasons she has been harmed.

Tschabalala Self

Tshcabalala Self with her sculpture in London

As a Black woman, this is a reality that I reckon with every day. In 2019, I wrote a personal essay for gal-dem on my own experience of racism in the streets of London, The Politics of the Pavement. I explored the various micro-aggressions we experience as Black women simply daring to exist in public space and the histories that inform them. When I learned of the violence inflicted on the sculpture, I was reminded of truths I had stumbled upon myself by simply choosing to take up space.

Firstly, as minorities, taking up space is a right that we are repeatedly denied – physically, emotionally, and institutionally – in a world committed to our erasure. Secondly, the lack of education on the history and present of oppression in Britain allows these hierarchies to continue.

Tschabalala Self in her New Haven studio, wearing white and posing with a bronze sculpture and large yellow painting

Arts education can and should be part of that challenge to the status quo. For Avant Arte Chief Curator, Gemma Rolls-Bentley, who worked closely with Tschabalala throughout the project, it raises pertinent questions about curatorial responsibility.

Amidst necessary yet complex questions of representation, it’s important for curators and institutions to think carefully about what kind of responses artists are exposed to in the places where their work is put. This is most obvious, perhaps, when we consider art in the public domain. We can't ignore the reality that while some works are allowed to exist as isolated objects, others become symbols – targets, even – for the labels attached to their subjects and makers.

Gemma Rolls-Bentley

There is a risk involved whenever an artwork is exhibited in public. With access, we open ourselves to scrutiny, but racism seems a steep price to pay for representation. On the flip side, there is also a tremendous opportunity for dialogue and engagement with the history of the place in which an artwork stands.

Seated will reappear as an act of resistance, even greater for what she has overcome. She does not exist for the vitriol of a closed-minded few but for the many who felt seen by her.

It’s tempting to remember the schoolchildren who passed the sculpture each day in Coal Drops Yard – parking their scooters and dropping their bags to marvel at her – rather than the actions of one hateful individual. However, having witnessed the response of local and global communities, it becomes clear that what began as a violation is now a part of the artwork’s story too. No one asked for proof that we need big and beautiful artworks like Tschabalala’s in public life for all to see, but now we have it.

Gemma Rolls-Bentley

Go deeper

Co-directed by Tschabalala Self, a film by Olivia Lifungula invited Londoners to share their own perspective on the simple joy of sitting.

two teenage girls sitting on the floor, embracing

Watch: Stuart Hall Foundation’s series #ReconstructionWork hosted an event on Building Black Cultural Institutions.

Act: Make your voice heard in Visualise: Race and Inclusion in Arts Education – an ongoing research project by Runnymede Trust and Freelands Foundation.

Read: Revisit the unveiling of Tschabalala Self's sculpture.

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Avant Essays are short(ish) opinions on art, written by anyone with an opinion on art. Have something to say? Get in touch.



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