Remember when Dasha Zhukova sat on a black women’s art chair
Dasha Zhukova, the Russian oil heiress turned one of the most prominent financiers in the art world, has been silent in recent weeks. She hasn’t posted on instagram since December. In February she stopped all exhibits at the Garage Museum in Moscow, until “the human and political tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has ceased”. And perhaps most notably: she hasn’t made any public comments about her ex-husband and garage co-founder Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and embattled owner of Chelsea FC whose close ties to the Kremlin have made him the target of several international punishments and a conveniently timed attempted poisoning.
If you’re not familiar with Zhukova, a quick introduction: she’s the daughter of Russian oil tycoon Alexander Zhukov (whose oil business, among other things, includes one of the largest non-state oil producers in Ukraine), who later married Abramovich, another oil tycoon. The latter got into his oil money under suspicious circumstances – buying state-owned Sibneft for $100m in the 1990s (in an auction now known to be rigged) and selling it back to the state for seven years later for $13 billion. Interestingly, it was also his net value when Zhukova met him in the same year. Over the next few years, Zhukova will spend the “home made” billion on a range of projects, including but not limited to: the Garage Museum in Moscow, Garage magazine, the online art sales platform Art.sy, the real estate development company Ray, and annual New Year’s Eve parties in Saint-Barth which cost up to 5 million dollars. In 2019, they divorced. The following year she married Lindsay Lohan’s ex-boyfriend, Greek Navy heir Stavros Niarchos III, in a St. Moritz marriage which would have cost $6.5 million.
But the money, the stars and superyachts aside, Zhukova’s true calling is art. We know this because in 2015, she Recount The Wall Street Journal: “Actually, I like physics, but it was in art that I thought I could make a difference for my country.” So, in this difficult time, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about his financial ties (left), as much as his personal expression (noble). That brings us to her most notorious celebration of the fine arts: the time in 2014, when she posed on a sculpture of a half-naked black mannequin, restrained by leather straps and molded into the shape of a chair.
The photo appeared on the Russian art blog, Buro 24/7, in an interview about the debut of Garage magazine. The chair in question, called Chair, was a work by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. Some have called it “Norway’s most famous artist since Edvard Munchthough that perhaps says more about Norway’s presence on the international art scene than anything Melgaard has achieved. The piece was intended as a ‘commentary on the politics of gender and race’, a spokesperson later noted – indeed, it was a reimagining of the works of British pop artist Allen Jones from 1969 , Hat Rack, Table, and Chair. The series of fiberglass sculptures depicted white women, dressed in S&M clothing, staged like pieces of furniture.
Obviously, anyone angry at the implications of this white billionaire socialite sitting on a literally subjugated black woman had missed the point. Like a Guardian journalist wrote at the time:
The chair has the shape of a bound woman, lying on her back with her boots as a backrest. Oh, and she’s black. Accusations of racism, attempts at apologies/explanations and articles on the whole sad saga. But in reality, it’s not about racism as such… The New York Times described Melgaard as an artist’s “vomiting projectile”. Excess is his thing. One of his other sculptures shows the The pink panther smokes crystal meth. His art may be in poor taste, but I’m pretty sure that in making this chair he did not intend to denigrate black women. Rather, it is a commentary on the controversial works of the 1960s British artist Allen Jones.
But even Jones’ sculptures have not always been warmly received. In 1986, when Chair appeared at the Tate Modern, two women entered the museum and sprayed with paint stripper. The stripper incident fittingly took place on International Women’s Day. Less appropriately, the photo of Zhukova, in which she sat on Melgaard’s version, was released on Martin Luther King Day. When the Organizing for Women’s Liberation group, among others, Noted that the image was “incredibly racist,” Zhukova’s spokeswoman posted a declaration:
Its use in this photoshoot is unfortunate as it totally took the work out of its intended context, especially since the publication of the article by Buro 24/7 coincided with the important celebration of life and legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. I regret allowing a work of art with such charged significance to be used in this context. I totally hate racism and would like to apologize to those who were offended by my participation in this shoot.
Buro 24/7 also: “Buro 24/7 is against racism and anything that can humiliate people,” said a spokesperson in a declaration. “The chair presented in a photo should only be seen as a work of contemporary art. We sincerely apologize if the published photos insulted our readers.
It may ultimately be for the best that Zhukova is keeping her head down these days. Melgaard, on the other hand, is still there. Last fall, his sculptures appeared as the centerpiece of New York’s new anti-revival gallery, O’Flaherty’s.