|Part I: introThe relativity of ethnicity. (Before I start my discourse, I would like to alert and, in a sense, apologize myself to you all that share a different background than that of mine. All my words and thoughts are but a relative truth, something that merely portrays my very unique and personal point of view, which is also something geographically focused. Nothing is absolute. Neither you, nor me.
There is not a one and only definition for ethnicity. My idea of what is ethnic does not necessarily encounters other people’s idea of the same thing. We cannot tell for sure if that couch would be classified as “modern” or “ethnic” by a New Delhi citizen. And that leaves so much room for different interpretations. So much for the better.
Greeks are amongst the first to define ethnicity. One of the meanings of “ethnos” is “people”. In general, the greeks used the word to define “people” who were not “greek”. Which means, foreigners. That which is alien. That idea sticks to nowadays, doesn’t it? The average european caucasian person would classify an african-printed shirt as an “ethnic look”. That makes me laugh. Something tells me we are all deaf and blind, dellusionally thinking we are all the same. LOL!
In the Priberam Dictionary of Portuguese language, ethnicity is defined this way: “a group of family in a geographic area whose unity is based in a common culture, a common society, a common economy and a common family.” That leads me to another question: what kind of families are we talking about? What kind of common culture is that? I shall not venture myself into any anthropological debare about “ethnicity”, because it may end up in studies that I simply do not know of. Let me then attain myself to the world of style, here represented by fashion and arts.
Part II: so much anger
The most recent ethnic fight in arts.
One of the main episodes that still has effects upon all of us (brazilians) is the question of colonization. What we are today has come from it: a forced relationship of domination and the mixture of folks. That is why we fight a hard struggle, even against our own selves, to recognize our identities. I really think this question must be an easier one to someone who was born in Rome. This person is born a Roman and he or she has all the literature in the world to explain and define his existence and his way of being. That sounds practical _and certainly boring. What about us brazilians? What were we in the past? Indians? Africans? Europeans? No. We, in a sense, didn’t always exist the way we are.
There was a very recent moment in the art world in which the “dominated” side reacted. Especially the africans, or children of the africans who went to study in the “first world” and found themselves immensely segregated in an ethnic group. From such revolt born a painful, agressive sort of artistic expression. The post-colonialism art. It meant: hey, I am not the way you are saying I am, ok? Or even: look, I feel this deep pain and revolt because you see us that way. From that art movement came names such as Kendel Geers (1968, Johannesburg), Yinka Shonibare (1962, London) and Kara Walker (1969, Stockton, California). They all descended from africans – Walker and Shonibare are black, Geers is white. By using different styles, these artists denounced, in the 1990s, racism in all its expressions, denying the western world, despising the century-old humiliation their ancestors have suffered.
“I AM LIVING IN A TIME WHERE CONTRADICTION, TRUTH, DESIRE, PASSION AND ANARCHIST ARE NOTHING MORE THAN THE NAMES OF PERFUMS”_Kendel Geers
Part III: the proof
It hasn’t been that long, but the post-colonialist art eventually came out of scene. Or maybe the western world just got tired of talking about those artists (are they still angry?), or maybe because some degree of respect has been achieved. I see a good example coming from the western world in the choosing of south african photographer Zwelethu Mthetwa (1960, South Africa) as one of the highlights of the Summer calendar of the V&A Museum in London. The V&A is, still, a worldwide reference in the curatorial field of “new arts” _photography, fashion and design, namely.
The very existence of Mthetwa more than updates, it reinforces our taste (i.e.: people who like fashion and see photography as an important tool in the contemporary arts). We can say he resgisters, through images, the spirit of our time. That happens because Zwelethu does not repeat the cliche. He crosses, nearly ignores, any and all post-colonialism. He gives us a vision that overcomes revolt. He has been chosen for what we see and feel on the aesthetic surface of this image, far from social debates. In the series “The Brave Ones”, one of the strongest images shows a couple of boys in a religious ritual wearing elegant garments. The characters: two Zulu boys pictured in an isolated and systematic (though slightly romantic) way show us a secure image of their own regional and universal identities.
However, it is not important to try and unveil Mthetwa’s creative process. What matters is his discourse starts from an already well-resolved idea of “difference”. He is not saying “us africans, the third world, etc.” He is showing us beauty, style and contemporary taste. It does not matter where he comes from. He is part of a group that is spread all over the world. He touches “us”, whether in Brazil, England, China. He talks with fashion, with streetstyle photography. So, he touches us, we are all part of Zwelethu’s group. You, the germans, Scott Schuman, me. We don’t have to choose if he sits between the dominated or the dominant. We can break any and all idea of ethnicity and feel brothers and sisters to Zwelethu, as we can feel siblings to Martin Margiela, or Dudu Bertholini.
(My point of view might have nothing to do with your own. Such conflict has always been here, and it will always be. Very likely, we will never share the same opinion about everything)
* Juliana Lopes is from São Paulo. She is a fashion journalist and researcher of Photography at the Accademia Brera di Belle Arti, in Milan, Italy