Earlier this week, a section of ever-present performance artist Marina Abramović’s memoir, Walk Through Walls, in which she discusses indigenous Australians, began circulating on social media. In the uncorrected proof, Abramović describes “Aborigines” as “really strange and different,” while offering a handful of very dumb observations steeped in a particular fetish for so-called primitive cultures. Today, publishers confirmed that the proof, which led to the Twitter hashtag #TheRacistIsPresent—a reference to her 2010 Museum of Modern Art performance, The Artist is Present—will be edited and the reference to indigenous Australians removed.
The passage, which Artforum notes was taken from a 1979 entry in Abramović’s journal, describes an encounter the artist had with indigenous Australians after the Sydney Biennale. After the Biennale, she and her then-partner Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) spent six months in the Great Victoria Desert with the Pintupi and Pitjantjatjara tribes. In the memoir proof, Abramović describes the tribes as “the oldest race on the planet,” adding that, “they look like dinosaurs.” There’s more:
They are really strange and different, and they should be treated as living treasures. Yet they are not.
“But at the same time, when you first meet them, you have to put effort into it. 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.”
Abramović responded to the criticism of the passage on her Facebook page. In her post, she said she has “the greatest respect for Aborigine people, to whom I owe everything.” She added that the passage, “does not represent the understanding and appreciation of Aborigines that I subsequently acquired through immersion in their world and carry in my heart today.”
Abramović has spoken extensively about her time in the Great Victoria Desert and her time with the Pintupi and Pitjantjatjara, crediting it with a “huge shift in my consciousness.” She’s previously said that works like The Artist Is Present, as well as earlier works like Nightsea Crossing, which many consider a precursor to the more recent and better known MoMa performance, were inspired by the “stillness” she discovered during those six months. Sure, but there’s still something uncomfortable even in this contextualization. The role of the “primitive” culture—often depicted as simple, because it lacks Western pretenses—has a long history in Western visual culture (a whole movement, even); one that’s deeply tied to colonialism and its lingering effects.
It’s a problem that’s plagued modern and post-modern art, this utter and absolute belief that cultures that don’t share the avant-gardist values of the Western art world must, somehow, be purer or closer to nature, and Abramović certainly isn’t alone either treatment or approach. Earlier this month, artist Vannessa Beecroft reveled in what Julianne described as “racial fantasies... doused with a bit of poverty tourism.”
Katie West, an artist of Yindjibarndi descent, told The Guardian that Abramović words were, “no different to the diary entries of early colonizers.” West continued:
The Indigenous Australian population is made up of individuals with their own lived experiences. In this excerpt, it seems this hasn’t crossed Abramović’s mind, and given the nature of her work, this is quite baffling.