#CindyGate and the Lasting Stain of Cindy Sherman's Blackface Photos

Old works resurface after a young artist finds Sherman's "Bus Riders" series problematic.

|
Oct 30 2015, 2:10pm

Images courtesy the artist, via

In 1976 Cindy Sherman was a recent art school graduate trying her hand in photography as performance. She started with five headshots and then approached a series of portraits titled “Bus Riders” in which she impersonates passengers on the city bus. Some of the 15 self-portraits feature Sherman wearing blackface. 

As a graduate art student from the University of Pennsylvania, E.Jane, also known as @E_SCRAAATCH, is focused on video, sound, photography and performance art. As an artist she is grappling with notions of representation and identity. She learned of “Bus Riders” series when fellow artist Fannie Sosa posted one of the images on her Facebook page. E.Jane was appalled by Sherman’s representation of the people of color.

“I was very frustrated to find out that Cindy Sherman performed in blackface within the series and the flatness of the black and brown characters she generated from that work," E.Jane tells The Creators Project last week in an interview through Gchat. "It seems she is employing humor within some of the characters in blackface which holds a specific history in America; A history Cindy Sherman should definitely have been aware of and considered before making that work intentional." 

E.Jane has fired up the conversation via Twitter and Facebook, where she has posted a call for discussion: “#Cindygate reflects larger systemic issues in art, spec. whose body is expected in the gallery + whose body matters.”

Thus, at its core #Cindygate is meant to expose this body of work to greater public scrutiny, and through exposure bring about a conversation long overdue. By identifying these portraits as racist, it charges an ever-problematic trope in the art world about self-representation and performance when the artist is in conversation with race, class, and gender, or seemingly devoid of that responsibility. It poses the question, are alter egos dangerous?

Can a white artist appropriate transformatively? Is the act of dressing up and making theater out of someone else’s experience a rite that makes you empathetic? Is throwing on the costume of another’s race or gender for shock value enough to qualify as art?

Screengrab via Sotheby's

On an all-too-regular basis, when we read about those insensitive jerks in chieftain headdresses at festivals, and see people dress up as "ethnic" for Halloween, we label them as ignorant and naïve. But the role of the artist is much more measured, much more exact and staged, as in the case of Sherman’s series. The artist has been quoted as saying, “I never thought I was acting. When I became involved with close-ups I needed more information in the expression. I couldn’t depend on background or atmosphere. I wanted the story to come from the face. Somehow the acting just happened.”

In 2005, the acclaimed cultural critic Margo Jefferson wrote a review of the International Center for Photography exhibit, White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art. Of all of the art in the exhibit, Jefferson was most disappointed by Sherman’s "Bus Riders" series. She wrote, “…the blacks are all exactly the same color, the color of traditional blackface makeup. They all have nearly the same features, too, while Ms. Sherman is able to give the white characters she impersonates a real range of skin tones and facial features. This didn't look like irony to me. It looked like a stale visual myth that was still in good working order.”

Other preeminent artists have performed in blackface through time: in 1974 Eleanor Antin created the persona Eleanora Antinova, an aging black prima ballerina in Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and more recently “nu-blackface” manifestations have appeared from Joe Scanlan and Vanessa Place.

E.Jane wants the #Cindygate hashtag to exist as a living archive online that “allows people to consider the history of performance in relation to the representation of the black body perhaps differently.” She and her peers have changed Cindy Sherman's Wikipedia page to reflect what they identify as “the truth of the 'Bus Riders' series.” E.Jane is also diligent in finding arresting facts about the series and tweeting it out under the #Cindygate umbrella, for instance, that “In May 2011, the 'Bus Riders' series sold for $206,500 at Christie's Auction House.”

“I think the past informs the present and helps us think about where we're going and where we are. It also helps us name things,” E.Jane says. “History isn't fixed and so the reality of the past changes for us as we learn more about it. The internet allows us to collect information that people may want to ignore or not include as we document history, but may actually be vital for writing it.”

What can young artists learn from #Cindygate? Identity, like art, is a personal journey that is launched into the world. Every prop and medium may matter to someone. Although Cindy Sherman's team was unavailable when reached for comment, E.Jane's question stands: “Why did she decide to do the ‘Bus Riders’ series and did she consider the black viewer when making that work?”

Related:

Original Creators: Master Masquerader Cindy Sherman

When Disney and Dr. Seuss Made Racist Cartoons...

Can Tumblr Preserve Black Contemporary Art?

The Challenge for Fiction in Nigeria

More VICE
Vice Channels