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An excerpt from the upcoming memoir that is circulating on social media. (via Hamishi Farah's Facebook page)

An excerpt from the upcoming memoir that is circulating on social media (via Hamishi Farah’s Facebook page)

Where to begin with such a passage? Do we criticize the comparison of the indigenous inhabitants of Australia with dinosaurs? The callous description of a community that doesn’t fit the “Western” beauty aesthetic? Honestly, there’s no good place, but the reality is that this passage in Marina Abramović’s upcoming 384-page memoir, titled Walk Through Walls and to be published by Crown Archetype, is a mess. Considering she already combats an image of aloof elitist, I can’t imagine someone didn’t let the artist know that this passage should probably be cut.

I reached out to the publisher for a review copy (in order to verify this passage) but have not heard back. From what I can tell, the artist may be present but definitely requires a better editor — and a better understanding of global cultures.

Abramović responded on Facebook to the uproar:

I have the greatest respect for Aborigine people, to whom I owe everything. The time I spent with members of the Pijantjatjara and Pintupi tribes in Australia was a transformative experience for me, and one that has deeply and indelibly informed my entire life and art. The description contained in an early, uncorrected proof of my forthcoming book is taken from my diaries and reflect my initial reaction to these people when I encountered them for the very first time way back in 1979. It does not represent the understanding and appreciation of Aborigines that I subsequently acquired through immersion in their world and carry in my heart today.

Marina Abramovic

Blame the diaries. Good one. I’m going to assume this might be cut in the final draft. And as you can imagine, there are many indigenous Australians, like Nayuka Gorrie, who are not amused, and #TheRacistIsPresent is now popping up all over social media:

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

120 replies on “Marina Abramović Writes Disparagingly About Aboriginal Australians #TheRacistIsPresent”

  1. Once again the quasi-journalists at Hyperallergic in kneejerk fashion, take a single passage, misrepresent it out of context and interpret it in their jaundiced yellow light.
    Like his colleague, Claire Voon, Vartanian seems terminally incapable of reading symbolic or metaphorical passages with any degree of competence.

    Please, Hrag, take Ms. Voon along with you and enroll in the nearest English 101, Lit 102 and Journalism for Dummies courses.

    1. You are talking above people’s heads on that one. Let them think they are the “change agents” they want to be. Knowing they are pawns of a bigger game would be too much to bear.

      1. Yes. True. My mom says its so hard to argue with uneducated people because they lack analytical skills.

  2. I stopped paying attention to this kind of crap when the overtly sensitive art majors brigade complained how Zoe Saldana wasn’t black enough for playing Nina Simone.

    1. Psssst.

      Some of us “art majors brigade” are not so overtly sensitive (unless of course a sensitivity to absurdly generaliizing, disingenuous assertions about Art Majors).

        1. Thank You. When dealing with difficult issues and conflicting interests, it helps to begin by finding those things in which we share opinions.

    2. What made Nina Simone who she was was her blackness. No one would think of casting Marilyn Monroe’s character with a skinny lanky haired brunette, for example.

      1. This may come as a shock to you, but at one time Marilyn Monroe was a skinny lanky-haired brunette named Norma Jean Mortensen. An actor puts on an act; that’s her job. If one is worried about dermal albedo, there is the aptly named makeup. However, if what you’re really worried about is essentialism, as seems to be the case here, nothing can help. Only Nina Simone could play Nina Simone.

        1. Anything to Back up your crude lack of logic. When I used that example I meant her persona. She may have had darker hair when younger but she was NEVER lanky-haired.

          1. Well, actually, I didn’t know exactly what you meant by Nina Simone’s blackness. It could have meant her skin color, her culture, her ideology, what she projected as a performer, her construction in the minds of others, or some mystical essence of Négritude inaccessible to, you know, the bad people. I chose the most rational meaning, actual skin color, mostly since you mentioned Norma Jean Mortensen’s coloration. If we are wading in deeper, more mystical waters, then not only my logic would be lacking, but so would anyone else’s. How could we measure degree of cultural or ideological Blackness, so that we could say that someone was psychologically Black enough or as Black as somebody else? In any case I don’t see how, under the strictures you seem to demand, we can escape the conclusion that only Nina Simone could possibly play Nina Simone, since no one else would possess her purported essence.

            ‘Lanky’ to me means ‘long and thin’ which is a common characteristic of much human hair, but you may have meant something else by it. My point is that Marilyn Monroe was not very good evidence for your argument because she was one of the outstanding examples of a person who recreated herself and what she projected, a living refutation of the idea of essence.

      2. Exactly! part of Nina’s struggle was that as a dark-skinned black woman she would never fit white beauty standards or be deemed “acceptable” then or NOW and that is what viewers of any movie about Nina need to face. Casting an actress who is acceptable, as far as white beauty standards, would leave out important nuances to the truth of race in America and the telling of Nina’s story.

        1. Absolutely! But for some reason some folk feel the need to defend something that is wrong on its face. That defies logic. The notion that any actor can play any part works in the theater. But in film (or HD video, for that matter) you absolutely need to stay close to reality.

          I cast actors of all backgrounds in my guerilla films. It’s easier for me to secure Latin actors of all stripes because I am of Cuban background. Zoe Saldana is a wonderful actress of Dominican descent and she should play roles that are usually cast with Anglos or anyone where the ethnicity is not designated — but she could not play Marilyn Monroe or Nina Simone. That’s respectfully it really.

        2. Well, going looking for truth in the media is an exercise fraught with landmines. EVERY female character is cast more beautifully (and younger) than the story calls for, because beauty is a hook that makes us pay attention. If the movie is for a wide audience, the standard of beauty of the cast needs to match the average audience preferences.

          It’s annoying, for sure. If the movie is for wide distribution, rather than a niche market, then not just black actors, but all female and many male actors will be less than appropriately cast, too.

          1. I do get what you are saying and this is the balance that the film makers will have to figure out. But I still say that Nina’s story is too important and complex to turn into a simple Hollywood puff piece with all beautiful actors and all. To make it palatable would be missing the point entirely.

  3. “These people…” She suffers from white man’s burden disease. At once racist and delusional.

  4. she has always been a reactionary fraud. This is hardly surprising and no amount of apology can erase her colonial perspective.

  5. “Hyperallergic is a forum for serious, playful and radical thinking about
    art in the world today.”

    Bullshit.

    1. What are you doing to do when art blog readers figure out how to properly respond to trolling?

      What other untapped communities are there out there for you?

  6. Who cares how, why, or when she wrote it. The poor choice of words is clearly insensitive to the Aboriginal people. Comparing them to dinasours and discribing their bodies as bloated with stick legs is negative and racist. Making it even worst her Facebook post comes off as a unapologetic and self absorbed. I am not a fan of artist with bloated egos and hers well known to be enormous. Be carful this is a digital world where everything written is scrutinized. How we deal with criticism in the social digital realm is important. Does it have to be so hard to just say sorry.

    1. Marina Abramović doesn’t owe an apology to anyone. I see her as a storyteller who honestly describes what her first impressions were. Considering her further interactions with Aborigines, she clearly is not racist. Jesus, how stupid people love to fling that word around! Armchair hacks should stay in their hovels and not vex the rest of us.

  7. Consider the Caucasian Curse. Raping, pillaging, and destroying
    indigenous cultures with savage abandon. Whitey is God.

  8. The honest expression of the feelings — call them racist, culture shock — she felt back in 1979 (when identity politics and political correctness had hardly become vogue) should not be purged from the book. Would we purge history of all ugly events and just present the nice “correct” version of history?

  9. Ah, the Western superiority complex, especially when encountering “savages.” Although to be fair, this is a memoir, so in the vein of personal truth rather than political correctness. Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead made her own errors of perception, in particular with gender. We are only human and can be of our time, even “great” artists. It’s her own subjective experience.

      1. We could actually place her as Central European, with leanings that are far more to the West than the East. More importantly, in her diary entry, she identifies herself as having a Western sensibility, hence the reference to aborigines as “dinosaurs” that some on this thread are so oddly offended by. And by the time of her early 20s she was living in Amsterdam, which further suggests she approaches her art from a Western sensibility. Next?

        1. Her artistic identity is modeled on patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church (whom she descends from). That’s East.

          No next. 🙂

          1. The East – West dichotomy is not so technically divided. East as in Asia – West As in Europe.
            Eastern Orthodoxy is still Christian, a clearly Western institution. Abramovic hails from a European aka Western nation.

          2. “Eastern Orthodoxy is still Christian, a clearly Western institution.”

            Neither “Eastern Orthodox” nor “Christian” are “Western” institutions. The first is self-explanatory, the second is history. The first two Christian nations in history were Armenia and Ethiopia.

  10. For many years I have been surprised that anyone would take Abramović and her lame hype seriously but perhaps no less surprised that this comment section would attract a Trump style rant. Riker wrote: “Whitey is God. Deal with it.” Hyperallergic should not publish racist statements like this. The hysterical rants of white supremacy maniacs like Riker get more than enough support from the GOP and D. Trump.

    For the pleasure of thoughtful readers here’s a copy of Pat’s superb and necessary post here, earlier:

    “They are too tall, they smell funny, they cover their bodies, they eat
    too much, they hunt us and confine us, they complain about everything,
    the earth is their plaything, they take our children away, they fence us
    off, they steal the water, destroy the creatures, talk too much,they
    rape us, they force us to wear their clothing, pray to their Gods, etc.
    Do white people act like that everywhere?”

    1. Thanks you rjmb. That was my reaction to David Riker’s post as well. Why is that Trump supporter even reading and responding to an art blog? And even worse, if he can’t handle a discussion about race, then why even bother to post a response? He should have just went on about his racist merry way and stayed out of the conversation if he couldn’t contribute an intelligent viewpoint. Pat ‘s post proved that when the tables were turned on “the gaze” David Riker couldn’t handle it.

  11. Does this diary entry really merit a sensational headline in my email box? A diary records initial responses to the world. Karl-Ove Knausgaard went to Newfoundland and said what many visitors would not say, and that is that a large number of people are very fat. A Norwegian would notice this . It is also true that a European visiting the US would notice the very high rates of obesity (second in the world, I think.) I am assuming that this diary entry is not the only reference to Australian aboriginals. The problem seems to be a cursory reading of an advance proof. I enjoy a lot of the critical writing in HyperAllergic, but much of the journalism seems amateurish and self-righteous.

    1. you know. i beg to differ. this is big news. it exposes her attitude towards others who are like her. its her recoiling that is shocking from an artist who was travelling at that time. perhaps shows what a sheltered life she had. even at 33. especially since she is a performance artist whose basis is people and communication.

      it is sad. for me. because i find most of my artist heroes are really really flawed people whom i would never want to hang out with. i love their work but truly dislike their personality.

      i guess this is big news for me because it brings up the conversation. i see this attitude all around me and there is no discussion about it.

      its a kind of conversation that we need to be having these days.

      i am glad to know she has grown as she explained in her post.

  12. I appreciate Hyperallergic for covering issues related to indigenous peoples, and shining light on attitudes that are problematic

  13. I am deeply shocked by Abramovic’s journal entries. By 1979 she was travelling all over Europe performing. She was seeing the world – which is made up of many kinds. To think those were her actual thoughts, thoughts from an artist is deeply distressing. I have always admired her work. But to see her think like she did reminds me of the 1600 Spaniards asking the Pope if the Native Americans were human and if they should be treated as such. the attitude of recoil when you see something different for the first time…
    She is an artist. I expect artists to be open minded or at least check out ‘new things’ with curiosity and wonder. not prejudice.
    what i did like about her journal entry was that it was well written supporting her opinions. she didnt just write they look like dinosaurs, but why. its just her attitude with the use of her words – ‘dinosaurs’, ‘sticklike’ ‘like no other faces in the world’. I am sure if we continued reading even further you would pick up on the us/them attitude.
    Sadly that attitude still exists today. The political campaigns around the world in the last decade or so have been showing that.
    But shame, shame on the editor who let that pass through. I am surprised Marina herself did not pick up on that one or maybe the publisher printed a wrong version.

    1. Oddly, the use of the word dinosaurs didn’t strike me as pejorative. It seemed more like a response to her perception of the profound age of the aboriginal people’s relationship to the land. Crocodiles or maybe sharks would have been a better metaphor, however, since those deeply ancient animals are not extinct and don’t carry the whiff of failure that attaches to the word dinosaurs. I certainly didn’t interpret it as saying aboriginals actually look like dinosaurs–clearly no human does.

      1. in one way yes i agree with you. dinosaur may not be a pejorative. but in the context she used it, and in the context of her whole entry i found it very pejorative especially followed by ‘strange and different’.
        the thing that was shocking to me was not so much her prejudice but her attitude. the way she writes about ‘zero’ communication.

        i guess i am more affected due to the political atmosphere right now in the US. i see the world as so segregated. one is good if they are assimilated, but strange if they maintain their cultural identity.

        she was 33 when she made the journal entry. not a teenager or an young adult.

  14. You’re joining the flame war too early, Hyperallergic. She said she will remove this passage in the final book. You win.

    She wrote that as a shocked young person in the openly racist year of 1979. Give her a break.

      1. i’d also like to think that Hyperallergic was entering the ‘hard talk’ conversation which in these days of globalization we should be talking about now. not ignoring and brushing under the carpet. What is good is you also posted her Facebook reply which shows her changed views but also Nayuka Gorrie’s response which says no matter what – it hurts.

        it gives us all a reminder to check into our own lives and see where we are doing the same thing ourselves.

      2. I like your POV here in the comments section, but the article only criticized the editor(s) indirectly (“I can’t imagine someone didn’t let the artist know that this passage should probably be cut”). Even considering that one line, the article wholly condemns the artist for her ill-conceived thoughts circa 1979.

        Who emerges from the womb with fully-formed, respectful opinions about anything? We all have a learning curve. I’ve had a massive learning curve since 1979, since 1995, since 2003. Hell, even since last year.

        We learn, we grow. People are free to comment on what and how I thought decades ago, but woe to anyone who accuses my present self of being that.

        1. I don’t see why the passage should be cut. It seems to be of the ‘I used to think this, but now I think differently’ variety. Such statements are an absolutely essential part of the much talked-about but seldom seen or heard honest discussions about race. Demanding that they be suppressed is exactly the wrong reaction.

          1. Mostly agree. I don’t think it should be excised, either, but certainly the blatant racism in her first thoughts could be filtered through her present sensibility. The groupthink of our culture has improved (dramatically in some quarters, not at all in others), and I think there’s an obligation our heroes have to the culture.

            Especially when Abramovic’s career is defined as one that makes us think twice about our assumptions. As a revered artist, her first thoughts are valuable, but to leave them as originally written, knowing they’ll hurt people she cares about, would be the stupid side of freedom of expression showing itself. IMO, that wouldn’t be true to her.

  15. I see from the way you post why you would think that. Her words were insensitive much like your post.

  16. What a totally bizarre thread this has been. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I don’t know whether Hypoallergic is deliberately do shock-jock of the art world type writing to boost circulation. I miss the old newsletter. The one that didn’t curry favor to the PC crowd but just focused on good writing about interesting art. There IS art outside of Identity Politics. It’s worth covering.

  17. what’s so bad about looking like a dinosaur? I want to look like a dinosaur. dinosaurs are cool.

  18. I would have expected a much more sophisticated approach from Marina Abramović, precisely and just because I appreciate her very much. That’s all of my part.

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