Created Equal


20 February 2017

“I think, I hope, I am beyond racism. But you have to be careful.” This was Gijs Bakker’s response when I asked about him about Black to White, which appears in his new one-person show at Borzo Gallery in Amsterdam.

The necklace is both simple and shocking: 15 male faces, shorn of hair, arranged in a skin colour spectrum. Some are easily recognisable (Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio), others less so (composers Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti). The thin white duke-era David Bowie, in stage makeup, hangs right next to jazz genius Miles Davis, who once said, “If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I’d spend it choking on a white man.”

What is Bakker up to here? And is it OK? First, a little background. Disegno readers will know Bakker as one of the impresarios behind Droog, the loose affiliation of Dutch designers who made such an impact back in the 1990s. In addition to maintaining a high profile in product design, he has long been an avant-garde jeweller. Bakker favours the medium for its intimacy, the way it gets right into the body; and for its intensity, the way it compresses value into very tight spaces.

Intensity is certainly present in Black to White, and it is easy to see how the necklace could offend. It presents race as a sliding scale, uncomfortably reminiscent of 19th century eugenic theory; and renders the complex question of diversity in the form of ornament, which might well seem inappropriate. Who would wear such a necklace, and in what circumstances?

Bakker’s motivations might best be gleaned through comparison to another object in the Borzo show, entitled 3.7. It is composed of nineteen links, each of a different material but exactly the same weight – a clever formal exercise and a technical feat (the jade link couples to one in titanium, not an easy trick). Bakker views this piece as autobiographical, a compendium of materials he has come to know over his long career. It also suggests a persistent interest in the theme of equivalence.

The subjects in Black to White are personal heroes of Bakker’s, chosen for their “conviction and integrity.” (He tried making a pendant piece featuring women, but says they were not sufficiently recognisable without their hair.) I won’t try to tell you what you should think about the work, but for me, it offers a useful challenge. Presenting his pantheon like so many classical cameos, from dark to light and back again, Bakker depicts difference as if it did not matter – as if it were a matter of only aesthetic, and not political concern. This is naïve, but intentionally and strategically so. That is why I find the comparison to 3.7 so apt. Some of the materials in that necklace are precious, others not, an arbitrary hierarchy assertively flattened into equality. If only we could do the same with race so easily.