Vanessa Beecroft

Since 1983, the war in Sudan has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, created three million refugees and evacuees, and led to a 9 percent infant mortality rate and to an average life expectancy of fifty-eight years. It is within this brutal context that Vanessa Beecroft embarked on the project VB South Sudan, 2005–, which comprises a documentary video (still in progress) and six photographs from 2006 that take as their subject the artist’s three trips to the Diocese of Rumbek to visit the local orphanage and donate breast milk to three babies, including a pair of sickly twins.

The large-scale photographs deploy iconographies that date back to the Middle Ages: a couple (a white woman and a black man) with a child (Holy Family); a young black boy depicted as if crucified (Black Christ); a pregnant woman enveloped in a white cloak (Pregnant Madonna); a black woman nursing two children, and another cradling them in her arms (both titled Black Madonna with Twins); and the artist herself, dressed in a light pink garment and nursing the twins (White Madonna with Twins). The latter presents a contemporary version of what was, until the end of the past century, one of the most widely disseminated devotional subjects in Italy—the Madonna del Latte or the Madonna dell’Umiltà, a depiction of Mary, breast exposed, nursing the Christ child, her milk a symbol of fecundity and abundance.

Formally irreproachable in their attention to detail and compositional balance, the images show hieratic and frontal figures against a bare wall, with vivid and contrasting colors (the white, light pink, blue, and red of the garments; the black and white of the skin) and a light that chisels the features of the expressive faces, the texture of the wrinkles, the folds of the cloaks, and the carved grooves in the wooden chair. There is a studied distance between the radiant perfection of these images and the brutal circumstances that they reflect, as if, transmuted into a picture, that reality were purified of specificity and contingency. Beecroft’s images are even more distant from daily events because they have an iconic and symbolic tenor that, in this case, aims at a universality of meaning. For a woman, breast-feeding someone else’s children is not an easy undertaking, and it creates complex bonds, but where we might expect a sense of involvement, even the risk of falling into journalistic cliché, we instead find the aura of the icon—the beauty and fragility, and the suspension of time, characteristic of Beecroft’s other work.

But there is something new here as well. The photographs are based not only on the artifice of a tableau vivant, but also on the painful and inescapable situation of a devastated country. There is a disquieting distance between reality and the image, which has the seductive appeal of a fashion ad—a distance that is obligatory if the goal is the creation of a symbol rather than a news item. But there is a risk of creating too great a distance, of opening up a chasm between the tragic reality and the pure image delivered up to the sheltered world of art, where Beecroft’s photographs find their ideal place.

Alessandra Pioselli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.