Andres Serrano is the sort of photographic provocateur who literally mixes religious iconography and bodily fluids like feces and semen to create photos that, one imagines, are meant to shock people into thinking they’re deep.
Serrano’s photographed the likes of Anna Nicole Smith and Donald Trump, but when The Guardian asked him which of his photos that are currently showing in an exhibit at the Jack Shainman Gallery in upstate New York is his absolute favorite, he picked an image from his 2001 collection The Interpretation of Dreams titled “White Nigger.”
The picture is of a white friend of Serrano’s whose entire upper body has been painted in blackface in order, Serrano explained, to make an important statement about racism.
Serrano, who is Afro-Cuban himself, came up with the idea after deciding that putting his friend in drag wouldn’t make for a believable picture. From the Guardian:
This is my friend Aaron. He begged me to take his picture. I couldn’t do it – everyone knew him in the art world – but I wondered if I could turn him into something else. He said: “OK, turn me into a woman.” He wouldn’t make a good woman. But Aaron was desperate to get in the show, and so three weeks before the deadline he called me up and said: “I’ve got another idea: why don’t you turn me into a black slave?”
I said, I don’t know about a slave, but I’ll turn you black, and I’ll call the picture White Nigger. He said: “That’s perfect – as a teenager I hung around black friends, and that was my nickname.” There’s no post-production or digital changes in this image, it’s all the work of a makeup artist. But I made sure you would see there was a white man under this black skin, because prejudice is only skin deep.
While the idea of painting a white man brown might seem like some sort of powerful “statement” to boundary-pushing artistes like Serrano, it’s difficult not to look at the picture and think of the countless white people that love to don blackface for shits and giggles apropos of nothing but racism.
Yes, we all understand that art is subjective and we should all be able to express ourselves as we see fit, but hey, as one black person to another, why don’t we all agree to not encourage blackface as a practice by pulling stuff like this?