Depiction of "Mexican" Costume at the VBKÖ

On October 29th 2015 an art exhibition sponsored by the Academy of Fine Arts opened at VBKÖ (Women Artists Association in Austria) under the title Familiarity, Imperial Myths, Unexpected Queerings. The image that promoted the event was a group-portrait photo of six people in colonial-era clothes. One person in front row is dressed in a “Mexican bandito” costume.

Coming across the promotion of the event in my email, as well as flyers in the academy, both the foto and the description raised a lot of questions:
“The invited artists and participants of the exhibition project all play with imagined, possible and actual familiarities which are rooted in decolonizing practices and invite the public to share their perspectives on migration, decolonization and queer artistic practices.” 
Beyond the gender critique the foto received, I was truly puzzled by the "Mexican" costume in front row in a project that spoke of decolonial strategies. I went to the opening to ask the South African photographer artist Sabelo Mlangeni, what was the idea and the meaning of this work. Mlangeni explained how it had come to be a collective process of people going to Prater and making a family picture and had started to play around with the costumes that were available at prater. The video and the other photographs in the series showed it so. People had been choosing, trying, and changing costumes.

After he explained I asked him if he knew that this costume had a long history of dehumanization behind. Mlangeni was surprised, and interested in knowing more. We talk for the next ten minutes about the Mexican /American war, the forced massive deportations and lynchings of Mexicans that followed and how all this interwove with the production of a series of negative stereotypes that went beyond the 'bandito'. We talked about colonialism and racism in Europe and it was a very enriching exchange.

The items themselves in the costume (the colorful sarape, the charro style sombrero, and the bandito rifle) had a history that went beyond the caricature, but by force of hegemonic power that film and media provided, the ‘mexican bandito’ had become a negative cliché about Mexicans and by extension Latin Americans. We had seen these images again and again in movies: the hot headed, war setting, toothless, mustache wearer, weapon holding, Mexican.

Without it being the intention this image had produced an snapshot of the inability to realize what such costume meant, there needed to be a document that collected that there had been a criticism to it and that there had been successful communication and an understanding of why it was problematic. This had happened in the Academy of Fine Arts, cultural studies professors and rectors included —and to my knowledge nobody had said anything to Mlangeni.

from:    Imayna Caceres
date:     Wed, Dec 16, 2015 at 4:28 PM
subject: Depiction of "Mexican" Costume at the VBKÖ

Dear VBKÖ,

On the 29 of October it was the opening of the exhibition "FAMILIARITY. Imperial Myths Unexpected Queerings". The exhibition was represented by one photo of a series by Sabelo Mlangeni which depicted a ‘Mexican’ costume. At the opening I approached Sabelo to let him know about the meaning of this costume. This led to changes such as withdrawing the image from the exhibit. To my knowledge these changes were handled privately.

The ‘Mexican’ costume presented in the photo and which was the main image of this exhibition has a long history of dehumanization behind. While the items themselves in the costume had a history that went beyond the caricature, the media and film industry had such a reach and impact, that the ‘Mexican Bandito’ had become a signifier for "Mexican" which was composed of negative clichés about the behavior of Mexicans and by extension of Latin Americans. Examples of the historical context in which the costume appeared (in films, products and TV series) can be found online, not least the information that is a costume that appears every year in the lists of ‘top 10 racists Halloween costumes’ in the U.S. where the costume takes blatantly racist turns. Altogether this costume has been employed in a historical exercise of dehumanising Othering, and it is at the core of the colonial imagery that was produced about Mexico in relation to its northern neighbor.

With this in mind, I find it important to reflect on how to stop the reproduction of such representations and in undoing the damage that producing and displaying such images causes. I mean this in relation to the power that institutions have to normalize situations specially if they are presented as critical practices. The exhibition said of itself: "The invited artists and participants of the exhibition project all play with imagined, possible and actual familiarities which are rooted in decolonizing practices and invite the public to share their perspectives on migration, decolonization and queer artistic practices."

There is lots to be done in regards to representation of different ex-colonized subjects in Austrian society, also in regards to indigenous peoples from the Americas (I think here of the Ibumedianer campaign where it’s slogan is a wordplay of “an Indian knows no pain”). But certainly institutions that hold a critical discourse and that organize events that mean to be decolonial, have a different urgency to address these issues.

A public response from the VBKÖ is important and necessary. This response should take into account that there is a critical absence when it comes to reviewing what colonialism and imperialism looks like in relation to Latin America —since nobody noticed the costume, not while taking the picture, printing it, hanging it, seeing the flyers, and the banner online. Nobody at the VBKÖ seem to have seen anything wrong with it. There is a need for a statement that this image unlike how it was described, is not decolonial.

I think it is important that the response is public so that people can witness that a mistake can be made, but also that is productive to admit that it was a mistake and actively respond about it in a responsible way.

Best greetings,

Imayna Caceres, artist and activist engaged in revising the colonial relations within and towards Latin-America  and the consequences that this entails for us migrants from this region.

date:   Wed, Dec 23, 2015 at 11:06 PM
subject:Re: Depiction of "Mexican" Costume at the VBKÖ

Dear Imayna Caceres,

many thanks for you e-mail! We very much appreciate the time and energy you took to write your critique of Sabelo Mlangeli's photos.

Within the board, your email led to a lot of discussions and reflections about the exhibition and Mlangeli's photos under discussion. Without a doubt, we should have had this discussion earlier. We'd like to thank you for pointing out to us that it is important to react officially as the board of the VBKÖ!

As first reaction to your email, we'd like to say that we understand your critique and we agree that the photos as such are not decolonizing the violent stereotype(s) they depict, regardless the artist's intention. We'd like to apologise that it needed your email to come to this conclusion.

We can understand your concerns that the board hasn’t reacted earlier to your and other peoples' critique. Even though, until now, we were not addressed as board, we were aware that the images under discussion were removed. We agree that the vbkoe, as an institution, should have responded earlier and publicly to these critiques which led to the removal of these photos.

Yesterday we had a board meeting where we decided on the following steps:

We, the board, will publish a statement reacting to your critique (website, facebook, email);

if you agree, we would also like to publish your email to the vbkoe;

we will remove the image from the website and instead put an explanation why the image was removed;
we'll invite the artist Sabelo Mlangeni to react publicly, too;
we'll publish a statement by the project organisers Ruby Sircar and Jakob Krameritsch;
we'll host a public discussion about the critique on the exhibition and Mlangeni's work, where we'd like to invite you as a speaker;
we support your demands towards the academy.

Since we are a group, it might take some time to come up with a statement we can all agree upon.

We attempt to do all these things asap!

All the best,

Published November 6th 2016