The #RacismisNotaDesignMotif began circulating on Instagram during Milan Design Week this past spring. Started by designer Stephen Burks, curators Anava Projects, and the PR team Hello Human (Instagramemail@example.com), the hashtag was in response to a selection of objects on view at a high-profile exhibition during the city’s international design week.
The objects in question, at first glance, seem to be harmless little glass figurines with decorated bodies and painted faces. However, they are caricatures of Black, Asian, and Indigenous people with bloated features and exaggerated expressions (Dezeen). “Such ‘decorative motifs’ have a long and shameful history in our field,” reads the “Racism is Not a Design Motif” statement. These objects represent persistent, harmful visual tropes seen throughout European and Western decorative arts and design.
• Consume design with a critical eye. Ask yourself how biases or histories of colonization may be imbued in the objects you interact with.
• Support and shop designers like the Black Artists + Designers Guild @badguild.
• Follow the work of Black Folks in Design @blackfolksindesign, whose mission is to connect Black designers to one another, both within and across disciplines.
As Hello Human’s founder Jenny Nguyen says, “The figures depict minority races as sub-human… which is not only demeaning and hurtful but it reinforces white culture’s notion of superiority” (STIR). Burks reiterates that displaying the figurines in Milan not only reinforces white supremacy but is an example of violence against non-white people. “We must understand how [the figurines’] creation in the 1920s was derived from an unequal system of cultural exploitation borrowing directly from European colonial practices of dehumanizing ‘othering'” (The Architect’s Newspaper).
In a published response, the curator of the exhibition explains that the sculptures (which are part of his personal collection) were hand-blown in the 1920s by an experimental glass art workshop in Murano, an island in Venice, Italy, that is world-renowned for its expert glasswork (STIR). He also brings up that a Caucasian figurine, too, has been satirized.
But the importance, or artistic merit, of Murano glassmaking to the decorative arts as an industry does not make the exhibition less racist, nor does exhibiting a white-passing figurine. Instead of acknowledging that these objects cause—and are rooted in—harm, the curator’s attempt to deflect and justify the exhibit only increases its potential trauma. It’s not just the mere existence of the figurines; it’s that the dominant culture continues to capitalize on the dehumanization of non-white identity in its refusal to recognize and repair the harm it causes.
In further defense, the curator argued that “racism [is] not solved by censoring or obliterating works of art that have since become… offensive,” suggesting instead that a solution comes from “vigorous debate” and “historical context” (neither of which his exhibition provided) (STIR, Dezeen). Who gets to decide what’s “become” offensive, then–not to mention how to react? His logic implies that it is up to white curators to tell people of color how they should feel about art attempting to represent them, and that their feelings of offense are unjustified unless they are tied to a contemporary rationale.
The curator’s attempted defense only reinforces his sense of supremacy, representing how colonial systems and structures shift value away from non-western and non-white people. Throughout history, this power shift has resulted in both explicit and implicit harm to communities outside of the dominant culture. Within the arts, this has often been an intentional approach to image-making, relying on inaccuracy to de-legitimize people in order to maintain capital and colonial supremacy.
In early 19th-century Europe, for example, it was common for paintings in the “Orientalist” style to portray African, Middle Eastern, and South and Central Asian subjects of colonialism in degrading form. This artistic movement–which commonly featured tropes of barbarism and hypersexuality–intentionally spread “political and cultural propaganda” (The Collector). The artworks were agents of Western colonialism, enforcing “its legacy of brutal exploitation” by spreading misinformation through the visual media of the time. These false characterizations continue to be the roots of globalized racism today.
Historian and curator Adrienne L. Childs is an expert in how the Eurocentric decorative arts have colonized non-white bodies. She researches how white tastemakers of the 17th century capitalized on blackamoor (House Beautiful). The racist design trope was first produced and popularized by makers who normalized decorative figures of “the black laboring body in the guise of fashion and décor” (Ornamental Blackness). These stylized, racialized design objects were sculptural depictions by European artisans of Black people of Moorish descent who had entered Europe from North Africa (NYU). Often shown in postures of servitude—carrying or hunched—these figurines continue to be a popular export of Italy, with the United States as its biggest market (ArtNet).
For the decorative arts and beyond, cultural production that centers the white perspective reinforces white supremacy. Unfortunately, despite its proven harm, there is still an active market for it. As design attempts greater inclusivity globally—with fairs such as the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale centering African and diasporic perspectives (La Biennale)—there is still work to be done and glaring racism to shed light upon.
As creators and spectators, it is our responsibility to not only divest from stereotypes in design and the decorative arts but to speak up when we encounter them. Being rooted in historical or artistic relevance does not disqualify a creative work from being racist. It is long overdue that racism in design be removed from its pedestals and plinths.
• Even in contemporary contexts, racist designs and decorative arts are often rooted in incredibly painful histories that are still harmful today.
• Caricatures and stereotypes reduce entire ethnic, cultural, or other complex identities in dehumanizing ways. They perpetuate damaging misassumptions and misunderstandings.
• The decorative arts are not exempt from accountability for their racist presentations, no matter their intentions.