Essays

Mea Culpa

There are things that I have failed to clue into that continue to make me wince when I think of them. Things that force me to ask “How could I have missed my cues so completely?”

Hovhannes Aivazovsky’s “The Ninth Wave” (1850) is one of the most famous paintings by the 19th century master of seascapes, but people have pointed out that the waves are not accurate since they resemble waves near the shore and not ones in the middle of a sea that this image purports to depict. (image via Wikimedia Commons).

I am not big on regret or remorse. Make a mistake; learn from it, and don’t repeat it. That’s how I proceed. But there are things that I have failed to clue into that continue to make me wince when I think of them. Things that force me to ask “How could I have missed my cues so completely?” Since this is the season of racial reckoning, I’ve decided to confess to two lapses where I slipped on banana peels between the Black and Brown world and the white one, whence I come.

The first was on the road in Mali as the first director of the 2007 Venice Biennale to make a curatorial trip to Africa. Having visited Dakar in the capital of Senegal — at that time the only art show of its kind on the continent — I added a side trip to Bamako to pay a call on the photographer Malick Sidibe whose AIDS project I had chosen for the Biennale and who I had picked to receive the Golden Lion for Photography. I’d learned about the wondrous adobe mosque in Djenne from Jean-Louis Bourgeois, Louise’s eldest son, and, keenly wishing to see that monument, booked a car and guide to take me there. Before leaving Jean-Louis advised me to buy a soccer ball as a gift for children along the way, which I did. And when we were mobbed by a group of kids in a muddy village near Segou I thought that that was the moment to make the gesture. I was wrong. Worse, I gave it to one of the boys myself, forgetting that in all societies there are pecking orders and courtesies to be observed. My guide promptly reprimanded me, to my great embarrassment, explaining that I should have handed the ball to the head man of the village in order that he would be honored by my gift and I would be honored by his welcome, and that he in turn would be the person to pass it along. What I took for democratic spontaneity was in fact thoughtless disregard for local conventions.

The second, equally mortifying, incident took place at the Angola prison farm in Louisiana to which I was taken by a dear friend from New Orleans who regularly attended the Annual Angola Prison Rodeo and Arts & Crafts Festival. I asked to accompany her the next time she went because on a previous occasion she had bought me a fascinating painting by an inmate and I was curious about what else he might have made. As it happened, I went into the camp — a vast archipelago of high security compounds — alone. Once there I was warmly greeted and taken to lunch at the cafeteria by the artist who was serving out his twelve-year sentence, and by his friend, a lifer, who was a writer of considerable talent. By the end of my visit we committed to staying in touch and I promised to send materials. In sum, it was a very low key, amicable and straightforward encounter.

Or so I thought. When I got back to the main gate to meet my friend for the ride back to the city I was told in no uncertain terms by one of the guards that under no circumstances should I maintain contact or forward any art supplies. I have felt extremely guilty about not keeping my promise to the artist but was led to understand that if I did things would go harder for him.

Lessons learned? When outside of your own social milieu observe carefully but make no assumptions, ignore your own discomfort at being on the spot, keep your wits about you and tread lightly. Take account of the fact that your own individuality matters far less than what you appear to be or represent. Obvious? Of course. But when trying to act naturally in situations where you are uniquely, vividly anomalous, the best of intentions count for little if anything. Perceptions depend on expectations. Like it or not you are an abstraction until proven otherwise, and frequently there is no opportunity to do so. This goes against most of what I was educated to believe about the inherent common ground among human beings, but as recent events have shown most of that has turned out to be wishful thinking.

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