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Is ‘Fuck White People’ fucking itself?

Through consideration of Dean Hutton’s Fuck White People exhibition, I’ve happened on the thought that the reason the work engenders such a strong response from white people has as much to do with the fact that the artist is gender-nonconforming as it does with the sentiments being expressed.

If one looks at footage of Golden Dean taken at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Ghana in 2015, in which the artist parades naked and covered in gold body paint in front of a gawking audience, it is clear how Hutton has deployed their body (Hutton uses the pronouns they, them and their) in the service of spectacle. It’s also clear how that spectacle, combined with predominant ideas about the construct of race and the hierarchy it suggests, is a powerful foil to how whiteness sees itself.

The image of Hutton — robust, confounding and undressed — is offensive to the ideas of patriarchal whiteness, usually dressed in an aesthetic glow that sets the norms of beauty.

That is why, as much as Hutton has been glibly called “racist” by white people who disapprove of the Fuck White People installation, which was defaced at the Iziko National Museum in Cape Town last month, these people have also tried to shame Hutton for their outward appearance. Among the disapprovers was David Duke, a United States Ku Klux Klansperson, who body-shamed Hutton on social media, calling them “a disgusting sloppapotamus”.

By virtue of Hutton’s physical transformation and embracing of their body image along with the myriad ways it challenges the constructed aesthetics of white beauty, Hutton is striking a severe blow at the heart of whiteness. Combined with the polemic sentiment of Fuck White People, the reflexive disapproval of small-minded white people and even the discomfort of those who consider themselves progressive is easy to fathom.

That said, it is as an expression of allyship — a person of privilege showing solidarity with a marginalised group — that the work falls short.

Having observed the furore around the Fuck White People installation, I was left with the feeling that these efforts might just serve to maintain the status quo. The work consists of a poster emblazoned with the declaration “Fuck White People” in a repeated black and white pattern, a chair upholstered with the same design and a pair of golden boots evoking the artist’s Golden Dean persona, close to the assemblage.

The artist has been photographed posing next to the work wearing a three-piece Fuck White People suit, which they have worn publicly several times as part of the work’s evolution.

Two weeks ago, Hutton’s work was defaced by separatist group the Cape Party, who pasted a square banner with the words “Love thy neighbour” in red lettering over one of the works. It was a farcical “protest” in which the roles of the museum’s black security staff and the invading white and coloured Cape Party members were reversed.

The Cape Party crew, led by Jack Miller and probably numbering no more than five people, approaches the work, filming the act while manhandling the museum’s black security personnel. As the security staff prevaricate before launching a half-hearted attempt to prevent the act of vandalism, one Cape Party member can be heard stating condescendingly: “Wait, this is a protest”, before his colleague places the sticker in place and they shove the guards. No brute force is used.

To the security guards, it seems, the sanctity of Miller and his white colleagues is a fact of life. The men carry out the protest with impunity, adding layers of meaning to the work in
question.

If Hutton had sought to make whiteness visible and provide a space for audience and artist to “collaborate in dialogue”, they succeeded at face value. The levels of engagement happening in the mainstream public, however, are puerile and only the openly bigoted seem to be taking the bait.

“The current response, if anything, confirms the validity of doing this work,” said Hutton in an email exchange. “Whiteness is a very powerful drug and addicts can be dangerous when confronted. What has come out of the project is an archive I have been collecting around conversations in which people are discussing white complicity in racism and are trying to do the necessary work to shift perceptions in multiple ways.”

Hutton’s idea for this work — which is the subject of the artist’s master’s thesis at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art — came from University of the Witwatersrand student and #FeesMustFall movement’s Zama Mthunzi. In February 2016, Hutton photographed Mthunzi wearing a T-shirt with the words “Fuck white people” painted on the back and “Being black is shit” painted on the front. This sparked an art activation when he was joined by scores of students wearing similar sentiments. Transposed on to Hutton, this sentiment of black anger becomes an artwork, an act of allyship.

Hutton says, with each passing day, there is a growing community of white people who are not blind to the ultimate fact of what Hutton’s brand of allyship means.

“White South Africans have to return the land — and not just as a metaphor for dignity, economic stability, education and so on, but literally return stolen land to indigenous populations and work to decentre settler perspectives,” they said.

“We have work to do, and it’s not going to be comfortable and it’s not going to be easy, but we have a lot to unlearn. It’s time for white people to contribute to black-led initiatives and also in ways that carefully look at how we behave, and contribute to liberation work.”

But Hutton’s work, commendable though it may be, comes at a decisive moment in our history when the validity of white allyship itself is in question.

Hutton’s brand of allyship is one that has been touted and fêted often by white commentators in awe of white participation in the Fallist movement, which Hutton’s work, partly inspired by the goings-on in campuses, references.

What it boils down to is the idea that white privilege can be dispensed as a tool to normalise our society, that whites can use their privileges to dismantle the very privileges they have. This happens while the black population waits, affording white people the space to weep, introspect and reckon with the harrowing guilt of privilege and continuing racism.

This allows them to somehow throw resources at the problem until they gather the moral rectitude to return what are in effect stolen resources.

“My work is considered, and I acknowledge that a reading of it is appropriation of a black cry of pain and I apologise for contributing this violence,” said Hutton. “I acknow-ledge my own complicity of functioning within a particularly white art culture, museum and gallery context in how to make these conversations happen.

“There are multiple readings in the work; the design is not just an aesthetic choice. If you read the work, it reads ‘Fuck white people’. As in fucccccccckkk white people, as an exclamation of frustration. It also reads ‘White people fuck white people’ and ‘White people, fuck. Peoplefuck white’.”

As loud and as emphatic as Fuck White People is as a statement, my difficulty with it is that, as Hutton acknowledges, it has inadvertently contributed to the muting of what Mthunzi calls “our only way of responding and expressing
ourselves”.

An allyship based on patience and one that re-enacts silence is as much a ruse as turning the other cheek or waiting for the Messiah to return. It is a story we know too well. But précised, it means a master’s thesis and a career turn for Hutton and a suspension and an uncertain future for Mthunzi. 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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