I shared this on the AfroSpear Think Tank Blog yesterday:
Jenny Beyer, Christoph Leuenberger und Anja Müller (v. l.) schlüpften in “fremde Haut”, um im Trio gemeinsam die Einzel-Choreografien für ihre Soli “I I I” zu erarbeiten.
The photo above is from a theater production in Hamburg. Click through to read or translate the German text.
Below is a letter to the artists in the production and their response:
Letter from a concerned citizen named Love, an entertainer who lives/works in Hamburg, to the brains behind the show:
GREETINGS JENNY, Abendblatt, Kampnagel and other supporters of “III, It’s gonna Blow!”
My intention is to support good art. I am sure that is what you were all trained to represent. But unfortunately, as I saw the poster, and later read about “III, IT’S GONNA BLOW”, I could see nothing but your misunderstanding about what it means to “get into the skin of another culture”. Many of us (I have received many calls and e-mails) are shocked and saddened by your choice, to represent ANY culture the way that you have. The costumes show tasteless, debasing clichés of Africans, and takes Germany and the world back to the beginning of what creates problems through misinformation, caused by the lack of investigation into the rich cultures of our world. I am sure that a poster with Africans, representing Germans with arms raised, beer foamed drinking glasses, leather pants and wurst would first bring negative feelings to the viewer, even if the content of the show meant well. As performers, journalists etc., we must take responsibility and PRIDE in making new and UPLIFTING choices, and stop repeating the same DEGRADING ones.
My request is that you re-think YOUR intentions to bring “culture” to Hamburg and the world, and support only those quality efforts which are available right here in this beautiful city. A sure way to achieve true peace among the various cultures is to start with the TRUTH, RESPECT, and a REAL desire to “get into the skin of another”, through historical, artistic, cultural and personal research. Then, AND ONLY THEN, should we present those results on a worthy stage.
Thank you for your time.
Promoting peace and understanding,
Here is their response:
We are sorry, that our flyer offended you. However, if you read closely, you will see, that our piece has absolutly nothing to do with Africa. It deals with the tension bewteen collecive and solo. Three performer working together on soli, getting into the skin of another person not another culture. The costume for the flyer plays with the idea of carneval, alienation through disguise and other related themes. We therefore dealt a lot with a child-like understanding of costume and appearance. For a european eye, the used image is a clear reference to carneval, but we do understand that the American way of reading it would have references to ministrel shows and other forms of racial caricature which are much less prominent in the European mind.
We simply want to invite you to see the piece in order to understand, that this particular piece of art is in no way offending to any culture. Please accept our invitation, we would also offer you a free ticket.
My friend Trina in Germany also sent Jenny a letter:
I have been following this issue from afar (i.e. the “Hochsauerland”) and have seen the Abendblatt article, Love Newkirk’s letter to you, as well as your response.
I must say I found your reaction disappointing in that it latches onto a singular apparent misinterpretation without (in my opinion) doing the larger context the justice it deserves.
“For a european eye” and “other forms of racial caricature which are much less prominent in the European mind.”
While the idea of the minstrel show may well be something most common in an America context, the imagery of blackface chosen for your show is not singular to that particular phenomenon – and by no means, therefore, less hurtful, demeaning or misleading. This imagery of black people has it’s parallels in other societies as well. I would only quickly mention the British/Australian “golliwog” , the “sambo” as well as – to bring the matter closer to home – many clearly racist depictions of black people used during the Nazi era right here in Germany. These images were circulated as yet another vehicle to more deeply penetrate National Socialist dogma by further dehumanizing people of African descent, as well as justifying the continued colonial subjugation of the African continent and its peoples. These are certainly images with which many older Germans (and anyone with insight into the era) are very familiar.
Most significant for me, however, is the seemingly total disregard for the opinions and feelings of the hundreds of thousands of people of African descent living in Germany today – some for only a number of years; others already for several generations – who must still deal on a day-to-day basis with everything from this type of “minor artistic misunderstanding” to the most heinous and flagrant types of racially induced oppression and violence. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to believe that – within the context of a decidedly rich and extensive carneval history throughout Germany – there was no other imagery that contained an equally – if not superior (!) – reference to just the type of “alienation through diguise” to which the artists aspired.
By choosing to trivialize the responses you are receiving from people of African descent – not from America, mind you, but right here in Germany – you are continuing a cycle that renders us without a voice and “invisible” within the greater societal context. Our real thoughts, genuine feelings, personal opinions – our collective HISTORY – don’t seem to matter in comparison to the “artistic agenda” of select members of the Eurocentric population.
Is that really your message?
I actually don’t think so, but – as the old saying goes – “actions speak louder than words”.
P.S. Maybe these tips I collected for an early “blog post – “Taking Advantage of A ‘Teachable Moment” – can be helpful?
* Immediately acknowledge criticism
* Take your critics and their criticism seriously
* Stop doing whatever is offensive. ASAP!
* Avoid the temptation to slip into “auto-defense” mode
* Seek honest dialogue with a representative group of your critics
* Apologize publicly. And in earnest
I ask: Why is this still an issue in 2010?