Kle Mens Stępniewska (b. 1985), the Polish artist who traffics in racist visual imagery, responding to the articles published here, about her racist oeuvre, and here, about her curator’s defense of said racism, has bravely decided to apologize for her offensive use of blackface. Just kidding! Instead she wrote this defensive missive on Facebook, thankfully a Polish friend sent me a screenshot (although it is posted publicly, the artist, known for courting controversy, decided to block me).
Firstly, to address the question of a homogeneous Polish readership: while there is a general acceptance of her (work) here, it is mainly rooted around the institutions she has built relationships with, and not an actual following. Additionally, some Poles have come out against this work, publicly and privately, because they find it racist. Secondly, despite her “motivations,” the work is a clearly in keeping with blackface, which is a part of a long history of oppression, slavery and genocide, built on aesthetic, philosophical and sociopolitical racist assumptions, racist appropriations and underlying (white) arguments against Black liberation struggles.
Originally, the argument presented by Kle Mens’ curator, Elaine Tam, was that the art work derived solely from the Madonna of Częstochowa, a figure from the Byzantine-era with an undoubtedly complicated history. However, it seems that Kle Mens has solved the mystery, there are no issues with smoky churches or smudges making that lighter-skinned mother of Jesus ever more darker over the centuries.
“The very question of the Black Madonna anyway for my research is really contentious and ambiguous like she herself whether it is she is racially Black or the Blackness is the kind of deoxidisation of the paint that happens because of the lighting and the smoke in the church so this very quality of blackness that the Black Madonna has is itself some type of questionable thing that does not necessarily have to do with race but also has to do with like magic and mysticism and the question of the dis-ownership of the woman as she appears in homes and also disowned by immaculate conception and these types of issues I suppose that have to do with religion have to do with the female body are actually the ones Kle Mens specifically wants to address.” – Elaine Tam
Instead, Kle Mens states “I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the nationalists pray to a [B]lack Jewish girl, though they may not be fully aware of it.” Ergo, she’s performing – both via video and photography – as a mimetic, Madonna minstrelsy, also known as blackface. This is by her own admission. Furthermore, the brooding, yet brave, white artist contemplates even deeper thoughts, “The radical, political gesture of impersonating the Black Madonna of Częstochowa is an attempt to open this crack in white Polish nationalism … Its motivations is to create debate about the overlooked blackness of the venerated icon.” Well, none of that was mentioned in any of the literature leading up to the exhibition. Lo and behold, what was once not at all about blackness contra white nationalism, what was once simply an anti-clerical religious cry for help (it sure is!), has become revolutionary Black liberation art! Whoosh, like that, the artist pirouettes from narrative to narrative, holding out a bit of hope that, if relabeled, someone outside of Poland will buy the big bag of horseshit she’s selling.
As a reader (a Black woman) proposed to me, if Kle Mens is so concerned about the marginalization of Blackness and Black people in Poland by white nationalism, then why didn’t she collaborate with a Black artist to make these images? Because that would have involved destabilizing the work from its real meaning, which had nothing to do with “overlooked blackness,” but rather with Kle Mens own personal traumas growing up in a strict Catholic family. The work provided the entitled “Post-$oviet girl” – essentially the height of petty petit bourgeois – another platform to get back at her family; the work is a conduit to explore and alleviate the emotional pains she endured because of religion as a child and teenager. It is rebellion. I can respect rebellion. However, the moment she painted herself black, and given her racially problematic oeuvre, she immediately moved from heretical rebel to Confederate rebel.
Aside from her previous work, posing as a Polish John Wayne and praising cowboys in the US desert southwest, or ‘dressing up’ as a Geisha, this work reaches new heights of odious. Sexualizing the Black body (“Black Jewish girl”) – which is meant to be somehow ‘creatively’ juxtaposed to white milk dripping from her breast – the work becomes hollowed out of any liturgical anatomization while simultaneously playing to the tune of white supremacy. White people desire ownership of everything, even Black skin. Time and again, white people make egregious racist remarks, and when critiqued feel threatened and defensive. No, Black skin is not an accessory to be worn therapeutically via some ever shifting mind mime drama of the troubled white artist’s soul. Blackness is not something one can ‘throw on’ then take off to meet with friends at a fashionable club, ensconced comfortably in an isolated white mono-culture.
Enough is enough.
. . .