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BROWN FACES, WHITE REVIEWS

Against press trips?

  • May 19 2022
  • Rahel Aima
    is a writer and critic based in Dubai, an Associate Editor at Momus and Editor of BXD: The Postwestern Review.

“The sky above the port is no longer the color of a television tuned to a dead channel. From suddenly crystalline Venetian canals to the toxic smog that usually hangs over New Delhi, skies and waters are clearing as global travel all but grinds to a halt. Viral tweets of dolphins and drunken elephants may be exaggerated, but wild animals are certainly returning to cities, as if they hold a generational memory of the places their distant ancestors were displaced from. Nature is healing, we are the virus, or so it goes.”

I wrote this paragraph in April 2020, two years ago almost to the day, for a piece I later pulled. The United States’ Muslim Ban was in full force, and the art world was making noises about reevaluating its own frenetic pace of travel. Hans Ulrich Obrist announced he would radically cut down on his travel, joining artists like Tino Sehgal who famously insist on crossing the Atlantic exclusively by boat. Institutions and galleries vaguely gestured at carbon offset policies and other ways to reduce their footprints, even though it was hard to envision any of this happening at scale. That this kind of mobility has always been reserved for those with certain passports and national origins goes without saying, yet isn’t this precisely the kind of lubricated, jetsetting glamor that the art world promises?

Take Australian artist Hamishi Farah. In 2016, he was detained for 13 hours at LAX airport. He was en route to New York for a solo presentation at NADA, and was handcuffed to the wall of a cell for part of the time, before being deported back to Melbourne. The experience is recounted in Farah’s graphic novel Airport Love Theme (2020), which is full of finely-observed moments, like noticing a CBP officer’s hairline is tattooed on. It’s the third time the artist tries to enter the United States; nobody remembers him, but their phone immediately connects to the wifi. Later in the novel, they develop camaraderie with their fellow detainees, but realize halfway through thatour artist must separate themselves from the room’s fate and exercise the mobility they were promised as “international artist.” When the artist finally talks their way into a call by appealing to the officer’s own experience of growing up Black in a racist state, their gallerist is too busy cooing and wooing — ”He’s young, he’s Black, he’s political!”— to answer. “Very fishy, but wow! Great story…”, the dealer later texts. 

A similar dynamic holds true of the press trip, where you are often the only non-white, non-Western person writing for an international magazine, and almost certainly always the only person without the kind of passport that allows you to glide through borders, yet able to exercise the mobility you are promised as an itinerant art critic. You become an interface between the powerful and the power-hungry, between whiteness and an abstracted local populace, “one of us” who is also “one of them”. You become an instrument of a city’s plan to lure in cultural or just unabashedly luxury tourism. Very often, you find yourself cringing as people who would never dream of behaving the same way in their own countries talk down to drivers and others who can’t talk back, trapped in an awkward nostalgia-for-empire jolly of your own making. 

So, there I was with a suitably dramatic title — AGAINST PRESS TRIPS! — and an accompanying sentiment that I very much wanted to believe in. Despite the constant microaggressions, I love the taut, bizarreness of the genre, the vaporwavey loneliness of business travel shot through with all the dependably outrageous, yeehaw characters you meet along the way. It’s worth noting too that the press trip is often one of the few ways you can travel as a holder of a less-gilded nationality, with a smoothened, if not lubricated visa process. Yet, environmental impact aside, it doesn’t feel like there’s any real justification for traipsing into another country and taking opportunities from local writers, not as a parachuting Westerner, but as something that increasingly feels far more insidious.

I’m reminded of the point around 2019 when the US arts discourse became consumed by the question of why there were so few critics of color, spurred by a viral NYT op-ed by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang on the dominance of the white male critic, and the ambient, baked-in whiteness of arts publishing as a whole. The piece notes that when they do exist, the work of critics of color tends to be less read, and taken less seriously: “To be sure, people of color did review the [Whitney Biennial]. But their work was much less visible than that of the white reviewers, a dynamic shaped by the perception that the opinions of people of color are not universal.” But — whoever wants to be universal? Who even believes such a thing exists, let alone being something that a critic should aspire towards?

The discussion that followed overwhelmingly focused on Black, Latinx and Indigenous critics, and paid little attention to the overwhelming whiteness of editors and the subjects they might limit these writers to. And especially, the tendency to want a suitable — along whatever axes of identity — byline for hire to functionally serve as a mouthpiece for the editor or publication’s often earnestly liberal, low-key xenophobic views about a topic or a country. Palestine and Saudi Arabia, in my experience, tend to produce the most frustrating, embattled editorial processes; today, there’s only a handful of Western publications where I’d consider writing about either one of them. 

No one wanted to touch upon what felt like the proverbial elephant in the room, which is the awkward intermediate position of the usually East or South Asian critic: people like me. Very often, they are the go-to critics of color for editors and institutions. Under the flattening logic inherent to the phrase ‘people of color’, they find themselves tasked with writing about non-white artists whose communities and cultural-historical references they might have little to no familiarity with. By extension, they find themselves writing on behalf of these same communities. It’s a move that undoubtedly builds significant cultural, and even gatekeeping capital, even as it circumscribes opportunities for other non-white critics from the same communities. 

We might wonder why this feels so familiar, too, almost as if we’ve inherited an almost epigenetic sense of how to be the colonial middleman. How to leverage the almost always present yet always unacknowledged caste privilege, how to code-switch (at Kochi or Dhaka or Kathmandu or any such biennale or triennale, it tends to be particularly illuminating when people choose to eat with their hands versus with cutlery). How to weaponize first-person plurals, how to become and unbecome a person of color or a person of global majority at will. How to assume there’s anything so reductive as a ‘we’ in the first place. 

When restrictions did eventually ease up and exhibitions and biennials opened again, what if these were written about by local critics — or would-be-critics — who lived and worked in said locales, and not by their international counterparts being flown in? Perhaps they might need more time, or more intensive editing depending on their first languages, but while you can always edit a text for clarity, the same is decidedly not true for the invaluable specific knowledge and analysis this possesses. Is there something to be said for the perspective and fresh eyes of the outsider? Not by me: it’s increasingly clear that there is no such thing as objectivity in art criticism and this, I believe, is a good thing.   

And there’s something else that feels clear, too. There’s nothing inherently decolonial about this body, my body, perhaps your body too. All of us of global Southern extraction and maybe even bearing the passports too, yet asymmetrically privileged enough to leave our countries for work or for study, to even be granted visas, to be mobile enough to speak on behalf of others who look but can never behave like us.

//



  • Image Caption

    LaToya Ruby Frazier, Tuklor and Moses West Helping Deontray Crocket and a Flint
    Community Member Refill Jugs to Distribute to Elderly and
    Disabled Community Members (Ms. Rene Cobb and Shea Cobb
    Look On, and a Flint Community Member Passes By), Flint,
    Michigan, 2019
    Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta
    © LaToya Ruby Frazier
    Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

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