Left: The original portrait of a former slave from Guadalupe known as the “Portrait d’une négresse” by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist. To the right is Karine Percheron-Daniels’ work portraying Michelle Obama’s face, picked up and published by Fuera de Serie in their August 12, 2012 edition.
Since Fuera de Serie, the ‘lifestyle’ portion of the Spanish magazine Exposicion, released its August 12, 2012 edition, media attention across the Atlantic has been slowly grabbing on to the controversial front cover: a rendition of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s painting of a slave from Guadeloupe with the face of Michelle Obama superimposed on it. This piece, which is part of a larger series of celebrities being featured on prominent works of art by Karine Percheron-Daniels, has struck a cord with Americans and the portrayal of their First Lady. Many in the United States find it racist and distasteful as they wonder how any magazine could promote such an image that conjures up so much emotion and negative history. However, when you get down to the bottom line, there are clear cultural differences between the Spanish and Americans that have created this controversy, and understanding how each culture interprets the historical context of slavery through their ‘cultural filters’, or lenses, may help to assuage those deeply offended by this image.
As Americans, we come equipped to view things with our own ‘cultural filters’ because of our national history, upbringings, and societal values. As such, this image easily conjures up the not-so-distant memory of American slavery, the relatively recent fight for African-American civil rights, and the current prejudices and racial inequalities that many racial minorities in America still face today. It is easy to see why, given our country’s tumultuous history, that the image would be interpreted by many as racist or distasteful. Similarly, many women in the United States were discouraged at seeing the First Lady portrayed in a sexually provocative and objectified way. In her response to the article, Althea Legal-Miller of Clutch magazine summarizes the voice of descent when she says that the portrait reinforces the “historical denial of black women’s individuality and agency” and speaks to a “painful history of exploitation and erotic objectification, which continues to manifest in multiple contexts across the black female diaspora.”
For the Spanish, who have a completely different historical background, society, and culture, they might not have realized the extent of their blunder when making the decision to mass produce the image. In general, Spain has been a relatively progressive nation in the history of the abolition of slavery. In 1542, the Spanish Empire attempted to instate the first European law abolishing colonial slavery. By 1811, Spain had abolished slavery at home and in all of their colonies except Cuba, Puerto Rico, and San Domingo and by 1817 they had paid Britain a value of 400,000 euro to stop the trade to those colonies. Slavery continued to exist in the Spanish colonies and overseas territories until the 1860s, yet this historical information was far removed from the mainland where a minimal portion of the population is of African or indigenous American decent. With the fall of the Spanish Empire, Spain became a very poor country further torn apart by the Civil War of the 1930s and the despotic rule of Francisco Franco from 1936-1975 that culturally and economically isolated Spain from the rest of the world. Like most poor countries with little economic opportunities, Spain’s population became increasingly more homogenized until the 1980s when it cast off its dictator, Francisco Franco, joined the European Union, and saw huge growth and prosperity in its economy during the economic boom of the 1990’s. Since then, Moroccans, Chinese, Pakistanis, Ecuadorians, and Eastern Europeans have come to Spain in large numbers to seek better lives for themselves. Given this relatively new ‘phenomenon’ of immigration in Spain, a history of isolation and little internal turmoil with regards to slavery, it may be possible that the magazine editors were culturally blind to the offensive nature of the picture.
However, in a world where technology breaks all international barriers in an instant, this type of cultural unawareness is no longer acceptable. Given the article’s content, the editors at Magazine Fuera de Serie clearly intended a positive depiction of the First Lady, as a powerful female figure who has come to dominate the popularity poles with her grace and prowess in the White House. Their huge oversight in not realizing that the magazine cover would be internationally contested shows a severe cultural competency problem at the company and specifically on the part of those editors in charge of making final decisions. Had they undergone some desperately needed culturally competency training, they may have had enough awareness so that at least someone would say: “Wait, since this is a tribute to an American leader and will probably be viewed by Americans and people all over the world on the internet, let me call my American contact over in New York and get some feedback on how an American might view the idea and representation.” I can assure you whoever that contact would be would probably have told the editors to go back to the drawing board.
Indeed, Michelle Obama is a symbol of strength for women and African Americans in the US and around the world and no controversial picture can alter that fact. The culturally insensitive actions of the magazine only help to underline how important it is to have awareness of other cultures, especially in an age where technology and marketing on the internet make every company visible globally. For those Americans who were understandably deeply offended by the picture, it goes to show how powerful cultural filters can be that a message clearly intended as a compliment could be so easily misconstrued. Hopefully as we become aware of the impact of our American cultural views on slavery, the role of women, and sexuality in society and how vastly different it is from the cultural views of Spain, there may be some room for understanding and forgiveness.
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