Image: performance artist Marina Abramović. Image Source.
Yesterday I read the racist words written by Marina Abramović and I was stunned. Abramović is a big-time, world-famous artist. I was a huge fan of her work, had followed her career and looked up to her. I enjoyed her ability to connect to people and push boundaries with her performance art. Imagine my disappointment and horror at reading her words that degrade my people, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Her words alienate me and confine me to her narrow, bigoted vision of Aboriginal Australians.
Image: the alleged (since confirmed by Abramović) book proof as posted by Instagram user Rachel Wetzler. Image Source.
The passage is from the transcript of her upcoming book, intended to be published and distributed worldwide later this year. It is truly shocking that such a brief snapshot of her writing has so many examples of racist ideology and terminology, and its appearance in her transcript shows Abramović finds such comments acceptable and publishable.
Last night the media coverage I read noted social media backlash, captured by the clever hashtag #theracistispresent created by Nayuka Gorrie. Other than that, the articles minimised her racist words by recalling times she has said positive things about Aboriginal Australian people (in the same vein as the often spouted “I’m not racist, I have an Aboriginal friend”). Many articles finished off with a healthy plug of her book, because apparently, that is what is important at this point; none have tried to unpack the harm her words cause and may further cause if they are published.
So, let’s unpack the excerpt, and educate some people on why Abramović should be held accountable:
The passage begins with Abramović reminiscing about her venture into the Australian outback, and how unprepared she felt in the elements. However, she then goes on to say: ‘…nothing prepares Westerners – even Westerners used to extreme experiences – for meeting Australia’s first inhabitants.’ Who knew meeting someone of another race was such an ‘extreme experience’?! It is ridiculous that Abramović considers meeting people of a different race as being an ‘extreme experience’, perhaps she should consider that as a Westerner, she is too sensitive?
‘Aborigines are not just the oldest race in Australia; they are the oldest race on the planet.’ While the facts may be correct, the terminology is not: ‘Aborigines’ is an embarrassingly outdated term, and one that many find offensive. The name of the nation or language group are the preferred terms, followed by the more general ‘First Nations’, or ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’.
‘They look like dinosaurs’ Nope. Nope. Nope. I first read this sentence with incredulity. How do I as a human resemble a scaled or feathered reptile from the Jurassic period? You can laugh at the absurdity of that image, I did. But Abramović’s words convey an entrenched ideology that Aboriginal peoples are animalistic and ancient. She sees us as living fossils from a bygone era, rather than her living, breathing contemporaries.
‘They are really strange and different, and they should be treated as living treasures. Yet they are not.’ Here Abramović literally sees Aboriginal Australians as objects, that are intrinsically valuable due to our ancient roots, but ultimately not of worth due to our current conditions.
‘…when you first meet them, you have to put effort into it.’ In most instances of first meeting someone, you need to make an effort, especially if there is a language barrier. Instead, Abramović seems to lack that courtesy and imply that Aboriginal Australians are inferior.
‘For one thing, to Western eyes they look terrible. Their faces are like no other faces on earth; they have big torsos (just one bad result of their encounter with Western Civilisation is a high sugar diet that bloats their bodies) and sticklike legs’. Thank you Abramović for reinforcing that Western eyes are the only tools to measure beauty. Thank you for imposing your colonial, Eurocentric standards on us. How nice of you to then call invasion and forced assimilation an ‘encounter’. It makes it sound much more appealing, and almost like a mutual dalliance. That is not the case.
‘Also, there is (at first) zero communication with them. Tribal Aborigines don’t talk to you, because they don’t communicate in the way…’ The excerpt ends with this paragraph cut short.
What is even more disappointing and unacceptable is Abramović’s statement released today on Facebook:
Image: Abramović’s statement as made via her Facebook page. Image Source.
This is a classic non-apology. She has not apologised, a simply ‘Sorry’ is not uttered. She has shirked responsibility by attributing the words to ‘an early, uncorrected proof’ as if the words just happened to be there, like she didn’t consciously choose to include them. Despite her ‘greatest respect’ of Aboriginal people and the understanding she claims she has, Abramović had no qualms printing and circulating her ‘initial reaction’. She has demonstrated she values her diary ramblings more so than respecting Aboriginal peoples.
Marina Abramović, I am an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman. I am not your dinosaur. I am not your treasure to be valued or devalued as you see fit. Your Western eyes do not define my beauty or my identity. Learn respect, because you definitely haven’t earned it.