The Face Is Something You Slide Into

The Munch Museum’s presentation of Edvard Munch’s paintings of Sultan Abdul Karem would have benefited from less didacticism.

Edvard Munch, [Title under consideration], 1916–1917. Oil on canvas. Photo: Munchmuseet.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s notoriously difficult chapter on “faciality” (“visagéité” in French) in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), they make the claim that the head is the morphological terrain belonging to the organism, while the face is the domain of signs. According to Deleuze and Guattari, we do not so much have a face as slide into one. This assignment of faces is the starting point of structural racism, given that faces, at least in European cultures, are part of a hierarchy assessed by their degrees of deviation from the face of the white European man.

The deviation from the norm of a white face in Edvard Munch’s paintings of Sultan Abdul Karem, a Black circus artist who modelled for Munch when he visited Norway in 1916, forms the starting point for the exhibition Call Me by My Name at the old Munch Museum in Tøyen. The rest of the exhibition consists of books, artefacts, facsimiles of famous modern works of art, and photographs of human zoo exhibitions, leaving no doubt that both popular and high culture were permeated by racism around the time Munch painted his pictures of Karem. The curators, pundit Mohamed Abdi and the Munch Museum’s Lars Toft-Eriksen, state that little is known about Karem other than that he was a model for Munch and probably hailed from one of the German colonies in Africa (the circus with which he performed, Circus Hagenbeck, was German). They ask if we would have known more about Karem’s life had he not been Black. It follows, then, that the exhibition examines what these paintings can tell us about attitudes towards Black people in Norway, both then and now.

The first picture of Karem in the exhibition hall is a portrait mounted on a free-standing, black modular wall. The portrait is half-length and depicts him in a doorway; the interior behind him is only hinted at by rectangles in translucent orange and light blue. His face is sombre and rectangular, with defined cheekbones and close-cropped hair. It is a dynamic face, with hard contours filled with soft fields of colour: shades of brown, black, white, and grey. Karem’s attire – a large scarf and a slim jacket – would be regarded as formal today, but would presumably fall on the informal end of the scale when the picture was painted. A curious detail is the fact that his eyes appear to be closed. Around his eye sockets there is only brown skin and black lines – what I interpret as eyelids – and no visible whites. Perhaps this is a by-product of the coarse brushstrokes (in several of Munch’s self-portraits the eyes are difficult to make out, too). Or perhaps Karem’s eyes were narrow? Another possibility may be that Munch, whether deliberately or not, did not let his sitter’s gaze meet the viewer. The other content presented in this exhibition suggests that a white European observer in the year 1916 would have been reluctant to meet the gaze of a Black man.

Edvard Munch: [Title under consideration], 1916. Oil on canvas. Photo: Munchmuseet.

On the wall below the portrait, its previous titles are crossed out: Araber grønt Skjerf(Arab Green Scarf, 1918); Neger med grønt skjerf (Negro with Green Scarf, 1921); Afrikaner med grønt skjerf (2003); and African with green Scarf (2006). At the bottom of the list, we are informed that the picture is now called [Title under consideration] (2021) in the Munch Museum’s system. Unlike other male portraits by Munch, this picture never bore name of the person depicted; instead, it has for about a hundred years been known by different designations for its sitter’s skin colour. Wall texts, written in the first person as if the Munch Museum is Karem, appear alongside several of the paintings. The conceit is presumably meant to engage, but comes across as pompous, even if the texts contain some contextualising information. At worst, the approach can be perceived as condescending in the sense that it attempts to atone for past sins of omission by reviving Karem’s subjectivity as a hand puppet in a morality play for children: “This is me, as I was portrayed by Edvard Munch. This is how he saw me. He called me an Arab. Perhaps he did not know where I came from?”

Cleopatra and the Slave (1916) is, as the title indicates, a history painting. Here, Karem is cast as the naked slave vis-à-vis a clothed white woman reclining on a divan. The woman, who fills the left side, has a somewhat awkward pose causing her to blend with the furniture on which she sits; she does not appear to look at the slave, instead gazing out of the picture plane, her face stern and expectant. The naked slave stands in the foreground, almost stepping out of the pictorial space altogether, as if projected onto its surface. Brown, purple, green, and blue, his entire body consists of energetic vortices of paint. As in the previous painting, Karem’s eyes look as if they are closed – meeting neither the woman’s nor the viewer’s gaze – while the mouth is strangely open. The scene is set inside a tent, and through the entrance in the background, several line-drawn figures mimicking the two-dimensional idiom of cave paintings can be discerned. Some are naked, some wear loincloths, and one carries a spear

The picture is accompanied by books and drawings that date from around the same time as Munch’s paintings. These objects point out how Black men were associated with an animal sexuality that European men feared could corrupt white women. Cleopatra and the Slave does not convey an impression of any great sexual tension, and indeed the picture could be seen to challenge such prejudice. However, it seems more likely, as suggested by Toft-Eriksen by way of historical sources in his exhibition essay, that the work was perceived as de facto daring when it was exhibited in 1921 quite simply because a white woman is shown with a Black man.

Edvard Munch, Cleopatra and the Slave, 1916-1920. Oil on canvas. Photo: Munchmuseet.

The exhibition also contains facsimiles of works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Emil Nolde accompanied by African masks from the collections of the artist Guttorm Guttormsgaard, here meant to illustrate modern art’s interest in African art as a “primitive” role model. A copy of Edvard Munch og hans samtid (Edvard Munch and his contemporaries, 1933), written by one of the most prominent Norwegian art historians, Jens Thiis (1870–1942), is on display, opened at the first spread. Here, the artist’s “pure-blooded” lineage is described as the cause of Munch’s talent. Pictures from the Congolese village erected in Oslo’s Frogner Park in 1914 on the occasion of centennial celebrations of the Norwegian constitution, are supplemented by documentation of similar exhibitions of people from other European countries. There are also ads for revues where white people dress up as and parody Black people, so-called “blackface.” A documentary film addresses the life stories of some of the people who were exhibited as such human zoos, stories that are often tragic and characterised by exploitation and undignified living conditions. The material leaves no doubt that in Munch’s day, popular and high culture were both permeated by racist attitudes.

Towards the end of the exhibition, another version of Cleopatra and the Slave is shown. Three figures stand stiffly in a row from left to right: a nude white woman, a nude Black man, and finally a dog. It is difficult to see anything other than a representation of a racial hierarchy, an array of degrees of deviation from the viewer for whom the picture is painted, who may reasonably be assumed to be a white European man. Next to the painting, videos show rapper Musti, poet Guro Sibeko, and artist Ahmed Umar offering their personal interpretations of the motif. The projected videos cover a much larger part of the wall surface than the painting and are distracting. It is as if the museum’s education department does not trust the public to interpret the image on their own or to understand the point of exhibiting an unpleasant picture.

Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of “the machine that produces faces” is not the only theory of how structural racism works, nor is it exclusively a theory of racism. A well-known critique is posited by Gayatri Spivak who claims that Deleuze and other post-structuralists project a Western system of knowledge onto people that are without a voice. But the reason why Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the face is interesting in this context is that their claim that painting is an art in which the system of faciality, which measures all faces in terms of their degrees of deviation from the white European man, has at times been represented. For Deleuze and Guattari, the ur-model for the European white man is Christ. They state that from the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, there are paintings depicting Christ as Black or Brown – and also as queer (Mannerism). Cleopatra and the Slave does not quite fit the breach with conventional representation described by Deleuze and Guattari, for to be a slave is a state that has disproportionally afflicted people with dark skin. The slave has almost the opposite status of the son of God, so that the subversive gesture they describe – the overthrow of the hierarchy, or the “dismantling of the face” – is absent in Cleopatra and the Slave, regardless of whether the image is interpreted as a representation of a racial-biological hierarchy or not

It is not difficult to imagine a version of Call Me by My Name that omits the most superficial (and presumably costly) presentation devices, instead trusting viewers to make their own assessments of what Munch’s paintings are doing, of what dynamics arise when Karem is portrayed in conventional portraits and in the role of slave. Not because we need to pass judgement on these paintings, but because these are images that hone our visual reading skills and our ability to reflect precisely because of their ambiguity. The images can be thought to not only depict the incompetence and evil of racism, but also contribute to the same, without these aspects necessarily being contradictory.

Edvard Munch, Call Me by My Name, 2021. Installation view, the Munch Museum (Tøyen). Photo: Munchmuseet.