‘Spectral White’ at the HKW assesses how Europeans may have been depicted in the art of the colonized. The exhibition offers an incomplete reconstruction of ethnologist Julius Lips’ (1895-1950) collection of objects and art assembled from colonized countries. It raises questions about resistance, violence, racism and appropriation as well as the ongoing presence of the white gaze. In 1937, Lips published ‘The Savage Hits Back’ while exiled in America. In the book, he made comparisons between the systematic oppression by colonizers and the German fascist regime that disenfranchised his own rights. The exhibition makes reference to this and includes extracts from the book. It feels like a timely exploration to undergo during the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There are a few issues with the exhibition, which are also highlighted by the HKW, when it comes to considering how successful ‘Spectral White’ is at interrogating these depictions. Like most European researchers, Lips understood non-Western art as an expression of collectives, therefore, aside from Thomas Onajeje Odulate and Tommy McRae, all of the artists are unnamed. In addition, many of the works of art were made for white buyers. Thus, what may be perceived as resistance, satire or a counter-colonial gaze, may in actual fact be catering to white demands. A critical eye is required for viewing ‘Spectral White’ but the exhibition, nevertheless, offers the ever-important opportunity to investigate ‘whiteness,’ colonizing Europeans and the perspective of the oppressed.
One such example is the sculpture ‘Couple Walking Dog’ by one of the two named artists in the exhibition, Thomas Onajeje Odulate. A number of conclusions may be elicited from this artwork. If we consider it a critique of the European lifestyle by a colonial subject, then it satirises the eccentricity of Europeans in Lagos. Going for a walk was a leisure activity and dogs were working animals. Taking a dog for a walk on a lead should be unfathomable. The sculpture may convey the artist’s gaze, and the nearly-absurd activities of ‘whiteness.’ However, it is likely that this piece was created for purchasing by Europeans, as a portrait of their privilege. The man and woman are dressed in a white shirt and tie and a dress, respectively. The woman has on beaded earrings. Lips asserted that the realism offered by the sculptures he collected was superior to the realism in European art, and this is a prime example. The sculpture either offers an insight into the colonial counter-gaze or exemplifies the difficulty of permeating the entanglements of the white gaze and catering to it.
Many of the artworks in the exhibition depict European soldiers. Entering the exhibition, we are greeted by a “hentakoi” carved by an artist from the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. The sculpture is known as a “scare figure.” It shows a European solider, skin painted white, with unnerving pig’s teeth bared in a wide-open mouth. The man seems to be shouting, with one arm raised, as if in a Nazi salute; he stands looking powerful and aggressive. The sculpture sets the tone for the exhibition; we are repulsed by this garish white figure. If we decide this artefact does indeed show a counter-colonial gaze, it expresses how this artist perceived European soldiers, which disturbs us to the core. The sculptor has carved the terror that they felt directly into the wood.
Lips’ book ‘The Savage Hits Back’ is also on display. The title on the cover is accompanied by an illustration of the above Nicobar “hentakoi” solider. The word “savage” in the title ostensibly critiques how the word was used to marginalise, objectify and turn people into the ‘other.’ Positioning the title alongside the illustration of the solider, whose arm is reminiscent of the Hitler salute, suggests who the real “savage” might be. Lips also encourages parallels between fascist Germany and colonial oppression. In the book, Lips conveys his vision of the future: fascism spawning imperialism and colonialism as he saw it in the rise of Nazism.
Another soldier in the collection is depicted with large ears and emphasized piercing pupils painted onto the eyes. The large ears and eyes express the alertness of the European soldier. His face is made repulsive with a thin mouth and small moustache. The attention to detail shows not only the artist’s keen eye and skill in producing realistic features, but suggests the haunting faces of particular people. The soldier bears a common motif of colonialists: his hands are in his pockets to express the detachment from his surroundings, lack of empathy and care and disregard for his so-called subjects.
As is often the case with HKW, the exhibition offers art in context with discourse. At times ‘Spectral White’ could be mistaken for an exhibition of artefacts, due to the heavy use of textual supplements. However, the text was often welcome, helping to explain the political and social implications of the nuanced work. The anonymity of the artists provided an insightful ambiguity. It allowed us to sit uncomfortably in the question of whether the artists were attempting to reverse the white gaze or, as the European researcher Lips suggests, their work spoke for a collective voice. Ultimately, it exemplifies the tangled web of oppression within European culture and the failures, thus far, to successfully reverse the white gaze. Tracing the portrayals of white oppressors today in a time of political uncertainty, with the rise of right-wing populism and millions of refugees and displaced peoples fleeing oppressive states, the artworks successfully echo past tragedies in today’s light. We may stop to ask ourselves once again: who are the “savages”?