The exhibition explores how Estonian artists depicted race and racial differences in the 1920s and 1930s. The rapid emergence of the Estonian Republic in 1918 forever transformed the social standing of Estonians. Newly cosmopolitan, Estonian citizens experienced the wider world like never before, transforming how they perceived themselves.
The global reach of European imperialism facilitated frequent contacts between Estonians and people from Africa, Asia and the Americas. In these encounters, Estonians realised that the general categories of race assumed more importance than specific categories of ethnicity or nationality: if any dark-skinned person with tropical origins was Black, then light-skinned Estonians were white. The visible difference of race presented artists with an opportunity to question the aesthetic boundaries of beauty and ugliness. Far from neutral, the choices that Estonian artists made to render their subjects as beautiful, desirable, ugly or exotic reflected shifting values about human dignity.
Blackness achieved hypervisiblity in the popular culture of the interwar period, as a wave of African American performers infused their culture – especially jazz – into the European continent. It was therefore due to performance venues – cafés, clubs, theatres, circuses, fairs and exhibitions – that Estonians associated racial difference with entertainment. However, since this entertainment traced its roots to slavery and displacement, these modern performances were complex spaces, where liberation and opportunity mixed with racial caricature and demeaning exaggeration, most infamously blackface. For those subject to such ridicule and humiliation, these performances were never hilarious or acceptable, but performers knew that prejudice was profitable.
Divided into the themes “Desire”, “Beauty and Ugliness”, “Entertainers” and “The Timeless East”, the exhibition invites visitors to consider how historical images of race inform the injustices of today.
Visitors may note that the titles of many artworks have been changed. This experimental gesture juxtaposes new neutral names with older exoticising and discriminatory labels to encourage ongoing dialogue.
This exhibition is a part of the permanent exhibition “Landscapes of Identity: Estonian Art 1700–1945”.
Curator: Bart Pushaw
Exhibition design and graphic design: Jaanus Samma
Coordinator: Magdaleena Maasik
Translator: Kaja Kährik
Darja Jefimova, Anastassia Langinen, Margit Pajupuu, Villu Plink, Aleš Zahradnik, Elnara Taidre, Kristiina Tiideberg, Tõnu Uusküla
Estonian National Museum, Theatre and Music Museum of the Estonian History Museum, Hiiumaa Museum, Tartu Art Museum, Rogelio Cerezo, Anna Antane and Merit Pai