Rachel Boyd questions whether Kelvingrove Art gallery should rename the infamous painting
Earlier this month, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum took the decision to rename Andre Lhote’s painting Negress, to Head of a Woman. Since the original acquisition of the painting from John Mathias in 1951, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre have been operating with full knowledge and reference to the work as Negress. It is only in the face of public circulation via its recent display in Kelvingrove that the nature of this title has been reconsidered, raising questions of the extent to which Museums should take accountability for offensively titled works in their collection.
One of the primary concerns of Kelvingrove in the renaming of Andre Lhote’s Negress has been that the title represents an offensive and outdated term. A term that not only stands for a colonial past, but represents a time in which colonialism dictated the mode in which we refer to the person of colour: an “other” to the white “self” of the artist’s biography and practice.
In 2015, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam began a major operation to rename all artworks with offensive titles in its possession. The initiative, called “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology”, also included racially charged references such as “dwarf” or “indian”. The issue with these is that the subject names were chosen by those who have historically had power over them: “The point is not to use names given by whites to others.” Words that Europeans once used to describe other cultures or persons will now be replaced with less triggering terminology.
Titles may also dictate a mode of ownership over the subject-object. Seeing is very much in line with naming and writing the personae of history. It is a privileged act. Our parents or guardians may have named us, but a name figures little in predicting our day-to-day routine, our perspective of the world. That said, names are a fundamental example of how we configure our identity through second-hand sources: namely, our parents. For example, surnames indicate our familial heritage, at the same time prioritizing sameness over difference within the context of a clan; our forenames, meanwhile, are an indication of taste, exerting parental authority over how and who we are to be called. If our names are to impress anything upon us, it is that we are essentially the products of someone else.
Perhaps I am over-simplifying what is a very particular problem for people of colour. “Negro” – once originated as the signifier of a location identity for the people of the Niger – had been generalized as a slur for summoning a slave. The title has been implicated with the suppression of dark-skinned people. This generalization of term originating from a heritage of place is also a failure to grace skin-type and racial identity with the variety and nuance it deserves.
However, if we are to agree with Kelvingrove’s current decision that the artwork is now to be read as Head of a Woman, we are only subsuming the work under another canon – that of gender. More to the point, it may be easily confused with Bust of a Young Woman, also of Lhote’s ouvre. The similarity of these titles may be one way of “neutralizing” the work, of settling it into a familiar network of existing paintings. For auction houses and gallerists, this can pose a problem in tracing the proper provenance of an artwork.
Maybe the question shouldn’t be as to whether museums have the right to rename an artwork which has been offensively titled (Kelvingrove have provisionally made the decision to do so). We should be contemplating the right of the archivist, collectors and gallerists to know where Negress ended and Head of a Woman began. It is important we reconcile the derogatory language of our colonial past, an immediate retitling does not immediately rewrite knowledge of its prior incarnation to the many hands through which the painting had been previously exchanged.
An art object may be titled based on its physical descriptors, in which case Negress may have been the accepted expression of the time. But the title, in many cases, demonstrates to the viewer where to look first. Perhaps this radical rethinking of Lhote’s work will encourage new audiences to look elsewhere for remnants of who this woman really is.