A Racist Exhibition Mars Milan Design Week

·6-min read
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A Racist Exhibition Mars Milan Design WeekSimone Simone - Getty Images

For the last three years, dialogue surrounding race has been encouraged within the design world by the largely white architects, designers, curators, and editors that have held its keys. Rarely, though, are we asked what the end goal of this dialogue is. Is it for white people to understand the crushing effects of casual racism? Or to understand why racist tropes and practices should be eradicated from Western design? Is the end goal to make life and work easier for Black designers, editors, and architects? If so, that end goal is nowhere near being met, though the effects of racism are quite obvious.

This year during Milan Design Week, Italian curator Federica Sala presented a group show called Campo Base, described as a “manifesto for interiors” and comprising six discrete pavilions, each designed and produced by a different Italy-based architect. The press release states that the spaces are intended to offer “visitors a moment of respite, reflection, and calmness.” The presentation was held in a cavernous venue, divided by curtains and made atmospheric by sound emitting from hidden speakers, inviting visitors to experience a sense of “domestic intimacy” in a pseudo-public space. Several pavilions were thoughtful, considered, and even beautiful. One was not.

In Italian architect Massimo Adario’s room, Murano glass figurines produced in the 1920s and depicting racist caricatures of Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous people as subhuman were placed on display in an incongruously chic vitrine, with no readily accessible context. Like editor Grace Coddington’s Mammy cookie jars, they were presented as neutral—even fun—objects. The press release reads: “Massimo Adario interpreted the concept of intimacy in a room called “Il Collezionista” (The Collector), an abstract yet cozy setting where the weather unfolds among a selection of objects that mirror the personality of the collector.” The objects on view are part of Adario’s own personal collection, here presented as the cherished objects of a fictional collector.

Predictably, given its scale and the prominence of the designers and curator involved, the Campo Base show was given a spotlight in press about Milan Design Week. The only people to call it out as offensive were Jenny Nguyen, an Asian-Australian woman, of Hello Human; designer Stephen Burks, a Black American man whose work has appeared in ELLE DECOR (most recently in our October 2022 print issue); and the curators behind Anava Projects. Their joint Instagram post attracted immediate attention.

“Federica and I have been friends for nearly 15 years,” says Burks, who says he demanded an explanation immediately after seeing her presentation. “You see a European architect making a literal cage to contain the historical racist objects of the past, presenting them in 2023 as if they still have relevance. It’s really a question of how homogenous cultures like Italy marginalize people of non-European descent, how they have done that historically [see Blackamoors], and how they continue to today,” Burks says.

The curator, Sala, has in her defense said that one of the figurines was from the Caucasus. “We didn’t perceive these pieces on a global scale and that is our mistake,” she said in a statement. “It is our intent to listen and learn from this experience as our objective was not to create division or conflict.” A global understanding isn’t necessary to reckon with racism—Sala could have looked at Italy’s own history of colonialism.

Adario, the architect, has responded to criticism with a call for—you guessed it—dialogue. “I am not racist. I hate racism. This affair and the false accusations made against me are especially troublesome and difficult for me because they convey an image of me that is totally, diametrically opposite to who I am,” he wrote in a statement sent to ELLE DECOR. “Again, I am deeply sorry that this project has hurt the sensitivities of communities from other countries and other cultures, surely including some also here in Italy. That was absolutely not my intention.” This statement, in some ways, displays an even deeper disdain for people of color than his installation did.

He also states that he embraces “the opportunity to learn from my mistake.” But why, I wonder, was the “mistake” made in the first place? The design world is international and for the most part well informed. We all have access to data and history, the internet, and networks of collaborators and colleagues abroad, with craftspeople of color often producing the designs we see on the covers of magazines.

There are think pieces written about and research centered on racism in the decorative arts, including sources here at ELLE DECOR. What, truly, is the likelihood that Adario has never seen a critique of blackface or a #stopasianhate hashtag? I would posit it’s highly unlikely. So then we must consider what was behind his choice. His portion of Campo Base was entitled “The Collector,” and every collector collects what delights them. So it follows that these demeaning characterizations of people of color are in some way delightful to Adario.

In his statement, Adario said: “Our artistic heritage has such historical depth and breadth, which fortunately helps us to give context and not to judge only with the eyes of the present moment,” but no context was presented along with the figurines, nor was context provided afterward.

“When I first saw Adario’s installation I immediately went to look for any text explaining why these were being shown,” says Nguyen, one of the first to flag the exhibition on social media. “All I could find was a statement that mentioned the objects were from the 1920s and it was a fictional collector’s case. They were also called ‘ironic,’ which I still struggle to understand.”

Adario suggested, after receiving criticism for his display, that “racism is not fought by destroying works of art.” Nowhere do Burks or Nguyen suggest the offending objects be destroyed. Adario’s response here indicates an unwillingness to engage in the actual conversation being had, besides the overall tone deafness of a white man suggesting he knows best how racism is fought, after stoking its fires himself.

“The notion that we, the insulted, should have to explain to the people who are insulting us is in itself even more insulting,” Burks says. Still, clear explanations were offered and instead of genuinely listening, Adario asks to be reasoned with further and given the benefit of the doubt, which begs the question, Why are Black, Brown, and Asian people required to endlessly defend and explain their humanity with patience and eloquence, when no results or change are being proffered by their white counterparts?

“It’s a very vulnerable position Stephen and I have put ourselves in,” says Nguyen, speaking to how sensitive and exhausting raising this issue has been. Many other editors of color were reluctant to speak or write publicly about the exhibition. I wonder who or what they were afraid of? And I wonder when we will move past dialogue to more concrete change. So far, our discussions as a field have proven an endless cycle of emotional labor, and so again I wonder, to what end?

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