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Candice Breitz: Inside the White Cube

Woman in many different poses, clothes in white looking ghostly.

Anyone who has walked through Berlin this summer may have come across a familiar but also slightly unsettling apparition: the ghostly face of the whiteface.

The solo exhibition by Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz is on view at Fotografiska Berlin until December 4. Like the exhibition itself, these posters were intended to question the social status of whiteness and the resulting social privileges.

Whiteface is a powerful commentary on issues of race and representation. In an excerpt from our brochure, the author and cultural scholar Gürsoy Doğtaş discusses how the work focuses sharply on how these issues resonate in our attention economy.

Leading up to her exhibition at Fotografiska in Berlin, Breitz created a poster series in the style of Whiteface bearing the title Some of my Best Friends (2023). She thus reiterates a phrase from Whiteface, which, according to Jane Elliott, white people commonly use to deny their racism: “I’m not a racist…why, some of my best friends are black!” Figures holding potatoes pose alongside the phrase, “Some of my best friends are black” – or “Roma,” “Asian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” “trans,” etc. Approximately 5,000 posters were hung in public spaces across Berlin, linking Whiteface to white Germans’ denial of racism.

White Candice Breitz posters decorate the wall next to a bicycle that is parked.

As a motif, potatoes are symbols to be decoded, much like the iconographically charged paintings of art history. They belong to the category of pejorative ethnonyms for white Germans. The debate around the attribution of this vegetable (as well as Ferda Ataman’s column on the word ‘Kartoffel’ written before she became Germany’s Independent Federal Anti-Discrimination Commissioner) would lend itself well to a segment of Whiteface. The terms ‘Kartoffel’ (potato) and ‘Kartoffelesser’ (potato eater) were a response to the insults of white Germans toward newly arrived migrant workers under the post-WWII labor recruitment agreement. The migrants were insulted with ethnic slurs referencing their eating habits, among them ‘spaghetti eaters’, ‘cucumber eaters’, and ‘garlic eaters.’

The posters leave no doubt that the statement, “some of my best friends are black” – similarly applied to other groups facing discrimination – does not offer proof of anti-discriminatory awareness or practice. It is possible to have a close bond with, for example, a Black person and nevertheless feel superior to them or to continue to harbor racist stereotypes. Moreover, by using the phrase, “some of my best friends are…”, a white person effectively centers him- or herself, reducing subjects of discrimination to the status of mere extras in a white world.

A poster on a pole featuring Candice Breitz.

The phrase has a history that goes back to the abolitionist era. At that time, whites frequently used the term ‘friendship’ to trivialize slavery. Tyler Parry, a professor of African American Studies, provides evidence in his article, “A Brief History of the ‘Black Friend’.” In reply to the abolitionists in the North, slavery advocate George Fitzhugh said, in 1854, “The [white] Southerner is the n***‘s friend, his only friend. Let no intermeddling abolitionist … dissolve this friendship.” Even after the end of slavery, former slaveholders invented a platonic friendship between themselves and the enslaved, lamenting their loss in writing lines in their memoirs such as, “by the loss of our [black] friends, those we loved, and those who loved us.” In terms of discourse genealogy, the phrase, “some of my best friends are black,” belongs to a tradition by which enslavers and keepers sought to convince the US public that the enslaved were not only content with their servitude but even loved slave owners and keepers. The term ‘friendship’ seeks to obscure actual power relations, within which the enslaved were property and – by law – not considered human beings.

Germany also has a history of slavery. Civil law texts by the Hessian judge and state administrator Ludwig Julius Friedrich Höpfner paint a picture of this. In paragraph 70 of “Von der heutigen Sklaverey” (“On present-day slavery”) by Ludwig Julius Friedrich Höpfner, an 18th-century legal commentary, Höpfner states:

“Today we have 1) true slaves in the sense of Roman law; 2) serfs; 3) free servants and maids. True slaves are the n***slaves and the captured Turks. For, since the Turks turn our prisoners of war into slaves, so we proceed the same way with theirs. Turkish slaves are probably not to be found in Germany now, since we have not fought any wars with the Turks for so many years. N***slaves, however, are sometimes brought to us from Holland and other empires. Both types of enslaved people are to be judged according to Roman law.” Under the Roman state, such enslaved people were not seen as people but as things – and, as such, were utterly disenfranchised. Though there is currently no evidence as to whether slavery was also later naturalized in Germany via terms such as ‘friendship’, it’s clear that not only Black people but also people with ancestors from Turkey, for example, look back on a history of racism that did not begin upon arrival in Germany with the labor recruitment agreement, but rather goes back many centuries.

Denying racist realities and their long history is not solely the problem of the US or Anglo-Saxon countries. Similar structures are also evident in Germany, whether in institutionalized white supremacy or in ‘friendships’. Whiteface, along with the poster series discussed, opens up space for the necessary discourse. Questions such as, “Answer the question …what does it mean to be white?” hang in the room, awaiting answer.

Gürsoy Doğtaş received his doctorate in art history from the LMU in Munich, where he lives and works as a curator and author.