By Petrina Ng
Edited by Melina Mehr
The violence of white supremacy is not always scorching, uncontrollable flames – sometimes it’s a glacier, moving beneath our feet, slowly (invisible) but with the monumental force of gravity. This is a violence that shape shifts, and often embodies what we intrinsically consume as beauty, as seduction, and as poetic. It suffocates us, but we are not even aware of its gentle caress, nor its stranglehold.
The classic Greco-Roman idea of beauty is related to judgements of goodness, of quality, of order, and of being of one’s time, ie. a ripe fruit. But fruit does not ripen without the promise of death and expiration, and our desire for an idealized beauty, the same.
In the mid-fourteenth century, the first marble statues and busts from the Classical world were excavated in central Italy, leading to the ideas of beauty and perfection that buttressed the Renaissance and western world’s first taste of aesthetic purity. The pure white marble sculptures became the benchmark for the pinnacle of beauty, refinement, and skill – a value judgment undisputed for centuries to come. Half a millennium later, nineteenth century French neoclassical artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers maintains, “Marble, by its whiteness, has something pure, celestial. Colors are terrestrial… By contrast, sculpture bears the image of eternity.”1
Another two centuries later: moving throughout and within Sameer Farooq’s Restitution Series is a choreographic exercise of conversing in museological languages of display. White plaster reliefs of artifacts, in various states of revealing and receding, mimic centuries of anthropological excavation, curation, and presentation.
Our conditioned bodies are seduced by these visual languages that we understand to connote value and beauty, and our gaze strengthens their hold upon us.
These centuries of mythmaking, that whiteness equates purity, refinement, and classical ideals, has of course bolstered centuries of racialized violence, enslavement, and ethnic cleansing. In our present era, white supremacist groups adopt classical white marble statues and architecture as their emblems and idealize an imaginary white ethno-state that aims to re-create the Roman Empire. Even the term ‘western civilization’ has its roots entangled with white supremacist sentiment, as it’s still often presented as the centralized and indisputable foundation for any and all settler-colonial, Christian, white-dominated nation-states –despite a lack of biological evidence connecting most contemporary white westerners to a Greco-Roman lineage.2
And when building evidence mounted that classical white marble statues appear to have originally been painted in bold, vibrant colours, there was notable resistance from many scholars and museum curators to accept that classical antiquity had been whitewashed. In 2008, Fabio Barry (Stanford Department of Art and Art History) likened a coloured re-creation of a Vatican Museum statue of Emperor Augustus to a “cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi.”3 What he is implying is that colorful sculpture is akin to folk art (primitive, sensual, other) and white marble is high art (civilized, intellectual, pivotal). Other scholars, such as University of Iowa Classicist Sarah Bond, have published essays emphasizing that not only were these sculptures not purely white, but neither were the people they depicted. Bond notes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.”4 The challenging of the whiteness of antiquity has struck a chord with conservative trolls and consequently, Bond has been subjected to overwhelming threats of violence, harassment, and calls for her employment to be terminated.
Similarly, Princeton Classicist, Dan-el Padilla Peralta has argued that the field of Classics had not only a central role in the construction of whiteness, but also an ongoing role in upholding its mythologized supremacy: “If one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed as disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of colour, one could not do better than what Classics has done…” After speaking at the 2019 conference for the Society of Classical Studies, another scholar responded that studying western civilization is essential “because it’s the West” and put forward the question whether Padilla had been tenured because of his merit or because he is Black.5
The visual, cultural, and metaphoric languages of the liberal arts continue to be those of exclusion, selective memory, and violence. The Roman Empire also provided the modern west with examples of slavery, but we rarely see depictions (in museums, popular culture, or elsewhere) of slave owners in antiquity torturing, crucifying, or forcibly tattooing the foreheads of enslaved people.
We see soft reflections of this violence in Farooq’s work: blurred images of museological artifacts and imprints in the abovementioned plaster reliefs. Farooq tells me that he thinks of them as visualizations of potential exits. Proposing freedom from museological prisons, this creates space for imagined, alternative lives of both the objects and the lineages of the people who created them. But the difficulty of describing this violence remains in that it seeps into every and all aspects of history, culture, and daily life. This text does not even touch upon the whiteness of Classics scholars or of academia in general, the whiteness of museum leadership and curatorial authorship, or the whiteness of capitalism, popular culture, or educational institutions etc. etc.
How can we put into words the intuitive feelings we hold about how whiteness equates violence? That for those who are white, this violence is genetic and constitutional, and for those of us proximate to whiteness, we are drowning. This violence continues to pour into silences and absences, histories of ancient white marble figures included; and it continues to weigh upon us, invisibly and with the monumental force of gravity.
1 [David d’Angers], Les Carnets de David d’Angers, ed. André Bruel, 2 vols. Paris: Librarie Plon, 1958, vol. I, p. 182-83; translation by the author. As cited in Emerson Bowyer, “The Presumption of White”, Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body, Luke Syson, Sheena Wagstaff, Emerson Bowyer, Bharti Kher, Brinda Kumar, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.), 2018.