Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1) 2012, Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams. (Installation view, 18 January – 16 February 2019, Serpentine Galleries). © 2019 readsreads.info

Grace Wales Bonner’s Serpentine Galleries exhibition, A Time for New Dreams, includes the work daybed by the artist Rashid Johnson. Johnson’s artwork makes use of zebra skins. I wrote to the Serpentine Galleries to offer a critique of how the artist uses other animals for his own means and received the following justification;

‘In both Daybed works, one could read Johnson’s use of the zebra skins as a critique on how humans have appropriated and used other cultures and related materials for their own means’

But how can a critique of cultural appropriation be made by an artwork that itself appropriates, in this case, the bodies of animals? The reply continues,

‘For Johnson, this concern is located specifically within certain colonial histories of the West and the exoticisation of artefacts and materials from Africa and Iran, notably the zebra as native to the former and the Persian rugs to the latter’

I would argue however, that it is the very (symbolised) exoticisation of the zebra by the artist that makes him unable to see it as a (dead) animal, an animal that was sentient, that wanted to live. This is why he see no contradiction in using the body of an animal in order to critique appropriation. The anthropocentrism and speciesism taking place here is a parallel to European exoticism. The animal is not seen for what it actually is, as a living creature with a natural habitat, but instead what it is in art. Here the artist is only concerned with human cultural appropriation rather than the appropriation of non-human animals. But what is the morally significant difference between human and a non-human animals?