Brown Skin, Blue Masks

by Nadja Millner-Larsen, Wazhmah Osman & Danyel Ferrari

The Palestinian resistance, James Cameron’s Avatar, and the visual rhetoric of humanitarianism.

"Brown Skin, Blue Masks" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Thinking Through Images project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

Nadja Millner-Larsen: On January 14, 2007, a hundred Palestinians gathered for a demonstration at the Huwara checkpoint near Nablus in the West Bank. They wore Native American costumes—headdresses, face paint, leather fringe—and held signs addressing the visiting US secretary of state. “The Indian wars are not over, Mrs. Rice,” they read. “We are still here too.” Three years later, James Cameron’s Avatar was released. Almost immediately, Palestinian protesters—most notably in the West Bank village of Bil’in—began to fashion themselves as Na’vi (the film’s reptilian protagonists), painting their skin blue and donning kaffiyeh loinclothes as they demonstrated against the Israeli occupation. At the same time, Avatar was invoked by indigenous tribes fighting the construction of a dam in the Amazon, Chinese bloggers protesting the demolition of artist lofts, and a Canadian environmental group lobbying against Alberta’s “Avatar sands,” among others.

The Palestinians have tied their own struggle to that of the Native Americans in the past—curator Rasha Salti drew my attention to Mahmoud Darwish’s 1992 poem “Speech of the Red Indian,” which takes on the voice of the eponymous native (“O you who are guests in this place / leave a few chairs empty / for your hosts to read out / the conditions for peace / in a treaty with the dead”). But only recently has it become apparent to me the degree to which adopting this imagery constitutes a break from the way in which Palestinians have generally been represented—as victims or terrorists—since at least the first intifada. I think this is partly because so many other groups of people have recently made comparable gestures, moving away from the typical visual idiom of global humanitarianism. Rather than shaming the viewer by brandishing images of pathetic, hungry innocents suffering in squalor—“You can make a difference in this child’s life”—they take on this abstract “native” identity. But to whom does this strategy appeal, and how?

Wazhmah Osman: One takes on another’s identity—whether that of the American Indian or that of the Na’vi—precisely because it already has some cultural currency, because it is iconic. Such representations are often thought of as fixed and totalizing; they evade being read in multiple ways. And yet appropriating these iconic images is the most efficient way of accessing popular culture, and therefore public discourse.

NML: But the image of the Na’vi clearly is being read in multiple ways by the various people appropriating it, whether they’re Minnesotans protesting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars or Londoners protesting the British mining company Vedanta’s plan to demolish a mountain held sacred by Indian tribes in Orissa. To me, these multifarious uses of Avatar imagery belie the notion that their meaning is somehow static.

Of course, there is a rich history of “playing Indian” as an act of dissent. Early-modern Europeans carried out protests while disguised as Moors and Amazonian warriors. American colonists protesting British rule regularly dressed up as Indians, most famously at the Boston Tea Party. New Agers in the 1960s constructed elaborate fantasies of native spirituality. At the same time, radical political groups assumed a Native American identity as an expression of solidarity with organizations like Alianza and the Survival of American Indian Association. One such group, Up Against the Wall/Motherfucker, distributed leaflets and broadsides that employed the Native American land rights struggles in a critique of the very notion of private property. “American society took over land from the Indians,” one member of the group explained while being arrested for occupying the Boston Common in 1968. “We are all Indians. All of us are Indians. We are the return of the Indians.”

WO: I recognize the political potential of appropriating this imagery, but I also worry that such representations might slide into simulacra, erasing the real entirely.

NML: Actually, that’s the point Daniel Mendelsohn made about Avatar in the New York Review of Books: The message of the film is that reality can be dispensed with entirely. Unlike Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz—Cameron’s touchstone—Avatar’s protagonist, Jake Sully, never wakes up. In becoming Na’vi, he shows that, in the world of mashups, social networking, and mobile devices, home—whether one’s physical environment or body—is finally irrelevant. The fantasy world of Avatar is more authentic, and thus more desirable, than life back on Earth.

Maybe it’s inevitable that after Abu Ghraib, Darfur, and the rest, people would lose faith in the power of reality—or at least realism—to shock the conscience into action. But then again, haven’t human rights campaigns—all kinds of political campaigns, really—shown a clear preference for fantasy over reality for quite some time (even if they have, putatively, adhered to the strictures of realism)? Don’t these campaigns present images of suffering as if they’re perfect windows into the world, obscuring the complexity of the situation (while benefiting hardly anyone beyond the groups deploying the images)? The idea that there is a pure form of suffering that can be divorced from political circumstance is itself a fantasy. What I find compelling about the Palestinians’ use of this imagery is the unexpected divorce of the sign and referent; whereas most representations of Palestinians demand to be read in a very particular way (terrorist, victim, freedom fighter), these are nearly impossible to read in any particular way. Of course there’s an emphatic message of resistance, but the overwhelming effect is to call attention not only to their cause but to the politics of how we behold them.

I think this gets at the question of how (and whether) these images mobilize sympathy—and shame—as humanitarian imagery tends to do.1 Thomas Keenan has called into question the notion that mobilizing shame—the default tactic of human rights advocates—is in line with the Enlightenment ideals thought to be at the root of the human rights regime. People shame one another by exposing them to terrible things that, ostensibly, they could help stop from happening; the point is to inspire a sense of guilt, even complicity, and thus action. Keenan argues that this actually undermines the Kantian moral subject, for whom the faculty for reason is born of liberation from the pressure of others. The mobilization of shame, with its “lockstep logic of if-then, in which knowledge generates action…seems to suggest a wishful fusion of an Enlightenment faith in the power of reason and knowledge with a realistic pessimism that retreats to the shame appropriate to the unenlightened.”

1 Humanitarianism is an ethical imperative to alleviate suffering, whereas human rights is a political framework meant to guard from the possibility of suffering. The visual repertoire of human rights is not limited to a single genre, though it remains rooted in traditional documentary photography (particularly the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who aimed to galvanize social reform with their shots of New York’s working poor and child labor in American factories, respectively).

It’s unclear to me whether or not these images—of Palestinians dressed as Native Americans and as Na’vi—are shaming anyone. The invocation of the US’s violence against Native Americans—“The Indian wars are not over”—might shame some Americans, but they don’t expose any hidden violence or degradation. It’s equally unclear how they appeal to reason; they’re not confronting us with documentary evidence that might trigger our sense of morality and compel us to act. And yet they produce some kind of knowledge, despite the lack of balloon bellies and limbless torsos. Much of that has to do with their wittiness: These scenarios reveal the utter irrationality of the dominant order, while the form of ethics involved in shame-based campaigns remains merely reformist.2

2 The images of Palestinians in Native American garb could be dismissed as kitschy, but I think they’re far from Clement Greenberg’s definition of kitsch as “failed seriousness”; rather, what we have here is an unsentimental brand of kitsch that deliberately refers to—and revives—a shared history of racial violence. Humanitarian imagery, meanwhile, continues to intently eschew references to politics and history. In dispensing with that visual regime, protests like the one in 2007 at the Huwara checkpoint also point to the exhaustion of the accompanying ethical framework. Instead of pleading, the Huwara protest marked Condoleezza Rice as a kind of tourist of history paying a visit to the same violently oppressive political system responsible for the near extinction of the Native Americans. It also suggested that the ability of shame to change anything has been exhausted.

Danyel Ferrari: Contrast this with Virginia Woolf's 1938 epistolary essay Three Guineas, in which she describes a series of images from the Spanish Civil War:

This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a birdcage hanging in what was presumably the sitting-room, but the rest of the house looks like nothing so much as a bunch of spilikins suspended in mid-air.

Woolf believed that making the destruction of the war and the suffering of others tangible, even visceral, would provoke the kind of compassion in her readers that would compel them to act. (“When we look at those photographs some fusion takes place within us; however different the education, the traditions behind us, our sensations are the same; and they are violent.”) But today we are saturated with such images, and they are rarely effective.

NML: Perhaps what we have here, in the wake of the failure of the Abu Ghraib images—and countless similar images from Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and so on—is the nightmare of shamelessness. I think this is, at least in part, the product of a general recognition that, as David Rieff writes in A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002), “the first and greatest humanitarian trap is [the] need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable.”

So much of the imagery in which humanitarian campaigns have trafficked seems to suppose that there’s an abstract, universal experience of political violence into which all humanitarian crises can be collapsed. Nowadays, there seems to be a greater awareness that such stories are reductive, if not deceptive, and that, as Rieff points out, the collusion of nation-states, international governance bodies, and aid groups has enfeebled humanitarian campaigns and muddled the moral authority of their causes.

This could be liberating, though, inasmuch as it has allowed people to stop directing their appeals to the same Western governments and aid groups, and facilitated the development of more radical, unconventional strategies of self-representation and communication. While the Bil’in protesters were explicitly addressing Rice, the stagecraft of the event made it clear that the intended audience was really citizens around the world who might later encounter, and somehow be galvanized by, documentation of the event on the Internet.

WO: I think the success of these acts still depends largely on whether, and how, they are covered by the news media, though some people may come across the documentation on YouTube. And I think they’re likely to be perceived as icons of struggle, righteousness, and victimhood; the references to Native American movements for self-determination are going to be lost on most people. Why would Palestinians choose to adopt the narrative of someone else’s near annihilation and failed struggle for liberation? Because the Palestinians’ image is so contentious that it makes sense to realign themselves with the victims, as opposed to the aggressors (terrorists).

DF: Well, the Na’vi are terrorists who won; they are victorious because they’re possessed of that stoic passivity attributed to Native Americans but also because they’re being directed by a white military strategist. In the real world, the noble Native American victim is usually a historical figure—which is to say, he’s already dead. (The depictions of current-day Native Americans are more patently and stereotypically unheroic: reservations, poverty, alcoholism, casinos, though perhaps with the gloss of a stubborn attachment to, and pride in, their cultural autonomy despite it all.) And in films, the particularities of Native American history are traded for a hyperbolic emphasis on spirituality (see Dances with Wolves), which, ironically, follows from the long-standing denial of the validity of their belief system. Spirituality is thus inoculated from politics and religion and is invoked (by Palestinians or Burning Man participants) to suggest an originary connection to the land. Avatar, obviously, is the epitome of this.

WO: To my mind, this seems to be part of the Palestinians’ effort to embody what Gayatri Spivak calls strategic essentialism: Their use of symbolism connects their struggle to a greater cultural context, one that includes both real and imagined struggles. In order to do this they’re tapping into, and exaggerating, stereotypes—not only of themselves but of Native Americans (the stereotype of which, I agree, finds its apotheosis in the Na’vi). Strip away the occupation and it’s almost like Mardi Gras, where black men have done much the same in connecting fictionalized “tribal” cultures with their own communities’ experience of New Orleans. As Nadja said earlier, this role-playing highlights how we tend to regard the actors in these performances as much as the cause itself. If it’s successful, it draws us to their cause because we have been forced to reevaluate our habits of looking and the politics underlying them.

NML: The Mardi Gras festivities are actually relevant here: They bear almost no resemblance to anything that exists in Native American rituals, but rather serve to reimagine African culture as a hybrid form—as intrinsically Creole, and as mixing fact with fiction. This all happens against the backdrop of another Mardi Gras narrative: New Orleans’ white social elite celebrating its role as the rightful heir to the local folkloric tradition of mysticism and magic. “The Indians subvert this spectacle by declaring a powerful lineage of their own,” writes the historian George Lipsitz, “one which challenges the legitimacy of Anglo-European domination.” To some degree, the point of the Mardi Gras Indians is to foreground how un-European Creole culture is, and even to dramatically reenact the original encounter between natives—whether in Africa or America—and Europeans. (Avatar, too, reprises that catastrophic encounter.)

Lipsitz has written about Mardi Gras as an example of how “the same forces that relegate ethnic, linguistic, and subcultural minorities to the margins of contemporary culture also transmit the oppositional sensibilities of marginal groups to a mass audience.” He argues that people “put the stamp of their own experience on the ideas and images circulated within commercial culture” in order to express a sense of their own autonomy—a desire that also drives the development of folkloric idioms. And now, as we see with the various uses of Avatar imagery, “the internal properties of the electronic mass media favor precisely the kinds of dynamic cultural creation basic to the entire Mardi Gras Indian activity.”

I actually first encountered the 2007 Bil’in demonstration when I saw Palestinian filmmaker Sobhi Al-Zobaidi’s Red, Green, Black, and White Indians (2008), a forty-three-second video that reworks the International Solidarity Movement’s footage of the protest.

Al-Zobaidi’s treatment of the documentation—he layers and distresses the footage, which changes from color to black-and-white, fades in and out of focus, plays forward and backward—opens a portal to ancient newsreels and ethnographic imagery, from Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North to Edward Curtis’s photographs of Native American life. The sound track begins with a clip of a humming film projector, which is followed by a barrage of drumbeats and protest shouts, which are suddenly interrupted by the sound of an analog videotape being rewound; the film ends with a ritualistic chant slowing to a halt. Over the course of those forty-three seconds, the potential of the documentary to provide access to the reality of the occupation—to any reality, really—slips away.

When I saw Red, Green, Black, and White Indians I thought of a statement made by Jean-Luc Godard in his film Notre Musique (2004): “In 1948 the Israelites walked in the water to reach the Holy Land. The Palestinians walked in the water to drown. Shot and reverse shot. Shot and reverse shot. The Jews became the stuff of fiction…the Palestinians, of documentary.”

Jacques Rancière responded to Godard’s remark in a 2007 interview in Artforum: “To say that, in the dominant regime of representation, documentary is for the Palestinians,” he argued, “is to say that they can only offer the bodies of their victims to the gaze of news cameras or to the compassionate gaze at their suffering. That is, the world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words and images. Subversion begins when this division is contested.” To me, this is true of the actual Huwara protest and Al-Zobaidi’s video, as well as much of the Avatar activism” we’ve been discussing. By refusing to present themselves as the eternal subjects of suffering and oppression, these protesters indict the division between those who have rights and those who do not. And by ventriloquizing the visual language of those who do ostensibly have rights (and who have, in exercising them, produced the imagery being appropriated here), the protesters contest the perceptual field in which those divisions are made, or assumed.

WO: Rather than elicit sympathy through expressions of private suffering, they speak to a demand for justice that’s been generalized, that includes everyone: “We are all Na’vi now.” (Whether they do that by appropriating imagery that is ultimately racist—see the many mashups of Avatar and Pocahontas—or by making use of that imagery to develop a kind of race-based kitsch that employs humor to discomfit us and critique those racist stereotypes is a whole other question.)

NML: I think Alain Badiou’s critique of humanitarianism is useful here. He argues that post-1968 human rights discourse splits people into two groups: those who have rights and those who do not. Because of this, the only way humanitarians can recognize the dispossesed is as victims; political action is reduced to the bare minimum of protecting people from harm. For Badiou, this has transformed the way the West perceives the third world: not as militants with whom one might have a political relationship, as in the 1960s, but as victims with whom one can only have an ethical relationship based on mere pity.3 (The crystallization of this shift may have occurred in 1985 at Live Aid, when David Bowie introduced a CBC video of a starving African child struggling to stand to the melancholy sound track of the Cars’ “Drive.”)

3 Journalist Linda Polman’s new book, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid, offers a twisted vindication of Badiou’s nihilism: She argues that the logic of the humanitarian era actually puts inhabitants of poor nations in the position of sowing strife and committing photogenic acts of violence (systematically butchering fingers, for instance) in order to win foreign aid.

WO: In a sense, that’s what James Cameron has done, regardless of how fraught we think his relationship with the various oppressed indigenous people who serve as the subjects of Avatar—and, now, as his compatriots in the battle against various dams and mines—may be.

Allan Sekula, Twentieth Century Fox Set for “Titanic” and Mussel Gatherers, Popotla, diptych, 1997.
Allan Sekula, Set for “Titanic,” Popotla, diptych, 1997.

NML: Avatar is so beloved among Egyptians that its loss in the Academy Awards (to The Hurt Locker) unleashed a firestorm of protest among bloggers. “How, they cried, could a politicised movie glorifying war in Iraq win over a film, Avatar, which ‘so resembles the causes of struggling people’?” reported The Guardian’s Joseph Mayton. (He claims The Hurt Locker, an “anti-political movie about the hardships war brings on the individual and the family,” deserved to win, and questioned whether Arabs’ enthusiasm for Avatar didn’t reveal a secret recognition that “a foreign saviour is needed if they are to realise their goal of throwing off the yoke of Israeli occupation.”)

DF: And now Cameron has gone from rehashing fables to joining Brazilian tribes fighting the damming of the Xingu River. Those tribes are actually media activists, having made videos documenting their struggle for years; Cameron and Sigourney Weaver are planning a lavish 3-D film about the issue. (Additionally, Cameron's Avatar Home Tree Initiative planted a million trees globally last year.)

NML: Despite Cameron's pop environmentalism, we shouldn't forget that the massive freshwater tank used for filming Titanic decimated the Mexican fishing village Popotla, as artist Allan Sekula showed in a 1997 series of photographs that were part of his Dead Letter Office project. But perhaps Cameron will finally make use of the kind of outmoded human rights imagery we’ve been discussing: With 3-D technology, ethical relationships become political ones, and victims become allies, right before your eyes!

DF: I’m not so sure. After speaking at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recently, where he received gifts of textiles, beads, jewelry, and a headdress, courtesy of tribes from the Peru, Ecuador, the Arctic, and Papau, Cameron admitted he’s suffering from “cause fatigue.”