Weeks after Hirst’s work went on sale for $80 million in 2007, the artist John Le Kay claimed Hirst got the idea from a skull Le Kay covered in crystals back in 1993. But Hirst was accused of a different kind of theft at the Venice Biennale this week, one that often carries charges of racial insensitivity and imperialism: cultural appropriation.
Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, whose work is also on display at the Bienniale, has claimed Hirst’s “Golden Heads (Female)” sculpture too-closely resembles a famous 14th century Nigerian artwork without adequately explaining the original’s significance.
Ehikhamenor called out Hirst on Instagram for visually appropriating the iconic 14th century brass “Ife Head”—believed to depict a king of the Yoruba people in the ancient Ife region of West Africa (today’s Nigeria)—and negating its historical context.
“For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria,” Ehikhamenor wrote in the caption of his Instagram post.
He also argued that the text accompanying Hirst’s sculpture, which references Ife within Hirst’s fictional tale about his own sculpture’s origins, is insufficient and will be glossed over by Bienniale visitors: “Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s. As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic ‘Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s Golden Head’. We need more biographers for our forgotten.”
In a subsequent interview with the Huffington Post, Ehikhamenor maintained that Hirst’s work had imperialist overtones: by appropriating Ife imagery, Hirst’s sculpture echoed the literal theft of original Nigerian artworks by British colonists. “It borders on the line of broad daylight robbery,” Ehikhamenor said. “One must also be mindful of the past relationship Nigeria has with Britain in regards to carting away some of our best works during the Benin punitive expedition of 1897.”
Hirst is the second contemporary artist to be accused of cultural appropriation at a prominent exhibition in the past few months. Charges of racial exploitation and cultural theft were recently leveled at Dana Schutz for her painting of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who was lynched to death in the 1955, currently on view at the Whitney Biennial in New York City.
People protested the painting in person when the exhibition opened in late March, and dozens of artists signed a petition calling for its removal and destruction.
Debates around cultural appropriation are part of a renewed cultural conversation about racism and colonialism in Western cultures. In 2015, M.I.A., the British-Sri Lankan rapper, had to fight to have a music video released because—she claimed in a series of tweets—it was filmed in Africa and was considered cultural appropriation.
But insisting that cultures cannot borrow from one another enforces a new kind of racial or cultural purity. It’s one thing to be mindful and considerate; it’s another to insist that, regardless of their intentions, white artists who incorporate history or stories from other cultures or races in their work are reinforcing racism and imperialism.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Hirst hasn’t been accused of cultural appropriation until now. In all the controversy and charges of idea theft surrounding his “For the Love of God” skull, there was no mention of the work’s most obvious influence: Mexican culture, specifically the skull imagery celebrated throughout the country during its “Day of the Dead” holiday.
Had Hirst created the work a few years later, he would have no doubt been accused of cultural appropriation for that—and his “Golden Heads (Female)” sculpture would have made him a repeat offender when it comes to exploiting other cultures for personal gain.