Students Question: Art or Exploitation?

Kirsten Rusinak

Lawrence has never witnessed as controversial an art opening as the one that occurred last Friday evening. Hailing all the way from California, mixed media artist Gretchen Beck might have considered saving herself the cross-country trip, had she anticipated the amount of criticism she would inevitably encounter.
As usual, the evening began with a lecture by the featured artist herself. The story began in a happy place, but as her lecture progressed, the audience turned on her. By the end of the rather short talk, the horrified audience was firing heated questions at Beck, who danced around them like a crooked politician.
Beck, a former volunteer with the Peace Corps, stumbled upon her inspiration while serving in Niger, West Africa. Much of her art is influenced by the native art of the red and black Fulani tribes, describing the red tribe’s art as “portable” and the black tribe’s art as “all about status,” with compositions consisting of heaps of expensive mirrors and dishes imported from India and China.
Beck stated that the “red Fulani are the nobles and the black Fulani are the slaves,” which corresponds to a “racial divide between lighter skinned people and darker skinned people.” Thus, Beck clarified the reasoning behind the black tribe’s materialistic approach, describing it as being concerned with desire for social mobility.
Beck lived in Niger for three years and has returned to Niger five times in the last nine years to conduct artistic research, which she describes as a “physically, emotionally and mentally taxing” experience.
The most controversial part of the evening arrived when Beck finished her lecture and turned the spotlight over to questions from the audience. A student asked about her sustained interaction with the Fulani people.
Apparently, she has a deal with the Fulani that she described as a “win-win situation.” She raises money in order to buy them food and in return they “aid [her] professional development.”
She continued, describing a time she gave the “second poorest country in the world … a little too much money.” Her comment triggered a series of spitfire questions from the audience.
One student bluntly inquired about why she thought her physical presence in West Africa and abstract art are more effective mediums for “raising consciousness” than bringing artifacts from the Fulani culture to America.
At the following reception, one student referred to the agreement as “exploiting West Africa.” Others told me they intended to get more information out of her.
Had Beck’s lecture been more informative and her explanations of her agreement with the Fulani more exact, the evening might have played out less aggressively. Whoever attended the event has a right to his or her interpretation, but when assessing art openings, the bottom line is the art itself, which in execution did not measure up to the approach.
The artist described the works in the exhibition as “abstract forms with West African Influence,” but anyone unaware of her approach could not possibly observe such influence aside from the repeated circular patterns derived from everyday objects like plates and baskets.
Overall, Beck’s artistic theory, “It’s important if you are going to glean from another culture to just glean from it,” came across a little weak.
It’s worth asking if reactions to Beck’s art would have been different had the audience’s mindset not been polluted by the cynicism produced by the lecture. One might also consider asking if it is morally possible for someone who has experienced what it’s like to live in third world country to want to exploit it.
Interested students should drop by Wriston and decide for themselves. The exhibit runs from Nov. 14 to Dec. 21. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday noon to 4 p.m.