In the 1990s I worked on a NY magazine where a visionaryphoto editor started employing a rising young photographer called David LaChapelle. LaChapelle was clearly a cut above the average fashion snapper and soon became the most famous thing about the magazine. When I did an interview with Tupac Shakur nobody read a word of the text because the accompanying photograph was a shocking LaChapelle shot of the young rapper dressed as a slave in the cottonfields. LaChapelle has now put magazine photography on hold and this year has been showing his work The Rape of Africa, a photograph that references Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The fact that Naomi Campbell takes the part of Venus suggests he hasn’t moved on that far, but anyway…
When I interviewed Damien Hirst for the NYT a couple of years ago about For The Love Of God, he was disappointingly evasive about discussing the obvious link between diamonds and the current lethal exploitation of Africa that was contained in his work. He did stress that they had deliberately sourced the £14m worth diamonds from ethical sources. I remember suggesting that with a work of this scale – which bought up a significant part of the world’s diamond supply – he must have also inflated the price of blood diamonds but he wasn’t interested in going down that route. In that Hirsty kind of way he affected a kind of Wow… I never really thought of that response, I should have pushed it harder and didn’t, and the discussion never made it into the short piece that was finally published.
At times it benefits art to remain evasive. To dictate what the audience should find in a piece short-changes us. And of course, at the time Jay Jopling was looking for a multi-million dollar price for the work, and any whiff of activism might have jeopardised the sale of a piece in which Hirst and Jopling had invested massive amounts of their own money.
But in this case, by leaving it vague, Hirst let the impression hang that he didn’t care a fig about the issue of diamonds being directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Angola, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia and the DRC within the couple of decades.
Ironically, this leaves the field open to LaChapelle to reduce the meaning of the work to a symbol of how the west has raped Africa. In his photograph, Hirst’s skull lies at the feet a child soldier. It’s an example of how, at times, art’s professional reticence about talking too much about the issues that surround the work leave it looking timorous, self-interested and carelessly aloof.
Detail from The Rape of Africa by David LaChapelle, 2009.