Upon entering the contemporary pier of the Armory Show on Wednesday, the first thing fair attendees saw was a gigantic board hanging from the ceiling that proclaims, in bold letters, “ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN.” Further complicating things was what’s installed below it: a teddy bear in a black T-shirt and an Oakland Raiders cap holding a cluster of black balloons that float a few feet above, each sporting that eternal insult, “Your Mom.”
The balloons are available to visitors, and soon after the fair opened, they started showing up everywhere, floating through the gigantic pier, and then eventually popping, sending a gunshot-like sound echoing through the fair.
They are the work of South African artist Ed Young. (The installation of the teddy bear with the two-sided board is $20,000; Your Mom Balloon, 2016, is free.) Young’s gallery, SMAC, which has outposts in Cape Town and Stellenbosch, was chosen to be a part of the fair’s Focus: African Perspectives section. During the Armory’s opening day preview, Young and SMAC were distributing fliers claiming that another work the artist had conceived for the fair was rejected by Focus curators Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba in an act of censorship.
The work, which was supposed to be on the back side of All So Fucking African, was to be a board with the phrase “BLACK PUSSY” written in bold pink.
“He’s always controversial and a little bit juvenile,” said Baylon Sandri, the director of SMAC, while standing in the booth.
“He’s a little bit of a naughty boy, and a little bit un-PC,” added Marelize van Zyl, the gallery’s associate director.
This much is made clear in the press release that alleges the censorship of the Black Pussy work. It contains an essay on Young, who is a white man living in post-apartheid South Africa, by the Johannesburg-based critic and journalist Lwandile Fikeni, who is black. It begins like this:
The art world hates black people. It hates them as cultural producers, as subjects of art, and seems to only willingly engage with them as objects of consumption. This is, in essence, what Ed Young was alluding to with his text based piece BLACK PUSSY, which, fortunately or not, won’t be shown at The Armory Show this year. This piece, intended to be part of the Special Projects for the Focus: African Perspectives section—or, what Ed Young seems to be criticizing with BLACK PUSSY, as some kind of ghetto section—the Harlem of Baldwin’s years, where well-off white men go to find black pussy, in the literal sense of the term. However, the piece was rejected by the curators for, one imagines, its vulgarity—a vulgarity meant to operate as a language with which to speak about the “auto-exoticisation and the whoring of ‘our blacks’ in the art world.” Ed’s words, not mine.
It goes on from there, discussing how Black Lives Matter has made it “fashionable to embrace ‘black’ forms of expression” and what this means for artists in South Africa.
After reading this, I went back to the booth to talk to someone at the gallery about the story behind the work, and van Zyl asked if I wanted to talk to the artist—Ed Young, as it turned out, was personally blowing up each “Your Mom” balloon. A cheery guy with stubble and a thick South African accent, Young confirmed that he wanted to bring Black Pussy to the Armory Show, and that it was denied.
“I wanted to do Black Pussy—well, it has nothing to do with pussy, really,” he said. “The Focus section is supposed to be about Africa, and this is about Africa, plus I was thinking about what would sell.”
He added bluntly: “They asked me to reconsider because, well, the curators are black and female.”
A press representative for the Armory Show said in an e-mail, “The curators, as curators, have the right to select the artists and works that appear” in the Focus show, and that the omission of Black Pussy was merely “selection.”
“Ed made several suggestion[s] and we discussed all together, Ed, myself, and his gallery and we decided on which ones were best,” Mutumba, the curator, said. “It’s not a matter of censorship. We work closely with our galleries to choose the artists and artworks they are bringing.”
The back of All So Fucking African now reads, “NOT ME IT’S YOU.”
“I cried about it, but I did manage to sneak it back in,” he said, pointing to the press release about Black Pussy, where there is a large picture of what the work would have looked like in the middle of the page.
Post has been updated with comments from the Armory Show and Yvette Mutumba.