New York

Fred Wilson

White Columns

Fred Wilson’s simulated ethnographic institution entitled The Other Museum, 1990,is dedicated to precisely that which the traditional museum excludes. An alternative to “our” museum—a repository of artifacts that correspond to official History—Wilson’s installation proposes other ways of seeing, symbolized by an upside-down world map at the entrance; depending on how you look at it, north can be south; black, white; and the “other,” oneself.

Wilson plays off the old-fashioned, 19th-century colonial museum, recording the white man’s travels among the natives and his eventual disastrous impact on their civilizations. Groupings of old black-and-white documentary photographs by “Early Ethnographers and Other Photographers of European Descent” are juxtaposed with clusters of images by “Early Black and Native American Photographers.” The white mens’ photos predictably show noble savages—usually women and children, usually naked. Four Brazilian women are shot both head-on and in profile, with and without clothes, like lab specimens or criminal mug shots, and without the idealizing regard historically devoted to the white female form. When the blacks and Native Americans get behind the camera and shoot themselves, things get more interesting, and weirder. Often they depict themselves earnestly working at modern tasks such as running sewing machines, working in mines, or instructing children in new, Western-style schoolhouses, as if to disprove the stereotype of the backward “lazy native.” More disturbing still is the internalization of Western values. These people project themselves back to Europeans as the latter wish to see them: a native dressed in European garb completes an oil painting of a quaint, stereotypical village scene, and a young girl in traditional peasant dress poses before a fake mountain backdrop.

Apparent throughout is the violence implicit in these colonial representations. A photograph of the white-man-as-collector, complete with hunting dog and rifle hangs at the entrance to a room labeled Bwana Memorial Gallery of African Art. Elsewhere objects are identified as “stolen from” various tribes, and sacred burial sites are callously unearthed by insensitive archaeologists. A display of “forced migratory birds” with names of Native American tribes (Cherokee, Seminole, etc.) equates man’s reshuffling of wildlife with his displacement of indigenous human populations. “Primitive” masks are gagged and blindfolded with colonial flags, and a taped woman’s voice (with moving lips projected onto a female mask) pleads: “Don’t just look at me, listen to me. Don’t just own me, understand me. Don’t just talk about me, talk to me. I am still alive.”

It’s late in the day for anyone to hold onto notions of racial or cultural superiority; and the whole colonial enterprise has collapsed under the weight of its own false pretenses. Yet recent upsurges in racism, xenophobia, and homophobia a lot closer to home suggest that our fear of (and need to silence) the Other is as strong as ever. Wilson’s deadpan presentation of objects that unmistakably reflect the damage wrought by such fears couldn’t be more timely.

Lois E. Nesbitt