13 April 2021
The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal has just appointed its first black curator, Eunice Bélidor. This is exciting not simply because of the new artists she may choose to exhibit – she is responsible for works from 1945 and says it is certain there will be racialized and queer artists – but also because of the different perspective she will bring on familiar artists, the way we look at them, and the we look at ourselves.
We hear a lot about representation these days, in the workplace, in the media, and in government. That is clearly important, but it is perhaps not the main significance of Bélidor’s appointment.
Alongside who gets jobs and who we see, there is also how we see, how we are seen, and how we allow ourselves to be seen, how we are represented and, most crucially, how we represent ourselves.
A long time ago the French West Indian psychiatrist and philosopher, Frantz Fanon, wrote a book called Black Skin, White Masks. His ideas are clearly more complex, but his principal idea is that people with black skin must adopt a white mask to succeed, even to live, in the world. This obligation alienates them from their own experience of the world. The position and attitudes of metropolitan white respectability do not allow for expressing or representing the experience of racial and colonial oppression, or indeed any other departure from the standards of the “white mask”.
And this is surely the reason to be excited by Bélidor’s appointment. She will help that whitest and most respectable of Montreal institutions, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, depart from that standard, question its value, and present alternatives to it.
She will also help us who visit the museum. For to some extent, we all wear that mask of white respectability, aware of what is at stake in stepping out from its carapace and be seen for ourselves, ashamed both of our departures from it and the dishonesty of departing from ourselves. (Fanon’s “double consciousness”?). On some level also we are all aware that to be seen as we are and without shame is the greatest freedom.
Bélidor’s appointment will help not only new artists be seen and give us new ways of seeing, but will also help us see ourselves and maybe step out from behind our masks. She can only do this if the MBAM and she herself allow her to be seen as she is. But it is that task which, it seems to me, is far more important to addressing our collective and individual predicament than her racial group.
Eunice Bélidor has a website, Eunice Bée, Esq.