Celebrity performance artist Marina Abramovic has apologized again for the passage of her upcoming autobiography that describes Aboriginal Australians as “looking like dinosaurs,” and suggesting that “when you first meet them, you have to put some effort into [liking them]… for one thing, to Western eyes, they look terrible… [with] big torsos and sticklike legs.” Abramovic, who lived with the Pijantjatjara and Pintupi tribes in Australia in the early 1980s, along with her then collaborator Ulay, first responded to the controversy last week by explaining on Facebook, “The description contained in an early, uncorrected proof of my forthcoming book is taken from my diaries and reflects my initial reaction to these people when I encountered them for the very first time way back in 1979. It does not represent the understanding and appreciation of Aborigines that I subsequently acquired through immersion in their world and carry in my heart today.”
Today’s statement, again on Facebook, again highlights that the wording was from an old diary:
My choice to include in my unfinished memoir manuscript the passage from my 1979 diary that used such terrible language to describe my first impressions of Aboriginal peers in the Western Australian desert is one of these regrets. My heart has been aching continually since this came to light. My words were offensive and I want to wholeheartedly apologize to those who I have hurt as a result. The most painful part of it all is that I have hurt Aboriginal individuals who trusted me, and that I perpetuated hurtful stereotypes of a people to whom I owe so much and respect so utterly. I know that the words I used felt like a betrayal and I am truly sorry.
On one hand, it feels vindictive to condemn someone for comments made nearly 40 years ago — if people aren’t allowed to grow and learn from their mistakes, what’s the point of anything? On the other, it’s hard to understand what on earth Abramovic was thinking including this passage of her diary in her memoir; these are opinions that should surely have only been brought to light in the context of how wrong they were. Neither of Abramovic’s statements really clarify this — twice she passes on the opportunity to make it explicit that she no longer stands by the views expressed in her diary entry, and one gets the feeling that she perhaps still thinks this would be a “normal” white person’s reaction, before they’ve attained the deeper understanding that she and Ulay gained by spending an extended time amongst an Aboriginal community.
This is, clearly, nonsense — if a person can’t look at another person, whatever their background, and see a human being, then that says more about their own prejudices than it does about whoever they’re looking at. The last thing Australia’s indigenous community needs is to be further dehumanized, because — as Artnet’s Rain Embuscado notes here — perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this whole controversy is the other opportunity that Abramovic has now passed up twice: to highlight the ongoing mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians by the government and the country as a whole.
The simple statistics are shocking — Aboriginals’ life expectancy is some 10 years lower than that of their white counterparts, their imprisonment rate is 14 times higher than that of whites, and they make up some 26% of the country’s prison population despite comprising only 2.5% of the overall population. As recently as last year, the country’s federal government unilaterally closed 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, with then Prime Minister Tony Abbot saying, “What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.” Only a couple of weeks ago, this offensive cartoon appeared in national newspaper The Australian, a paper that’s the rough equivalent of USA Today.
These are all things that are happening today, right now. If Abramovic’s time with an Aboriginal community was so important to Marina Abramovic, she should be spending her time and money trying to give something back, not revisit decade-old insults. Instead, it comes across that like so many others, she has taken what she needed — and left.