The Sudan, Adoption, an Art Star, and Controversy

Performance artist Vanessa Beecroft holding Madit and Monkor, twins from Sudan that she seeks to adopt, in her artwork entitled "VB SS South Sudan", shown during "The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins", a documentary directed by Pietra Brettkelly.  (Photo: Matthu Placek)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

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PARK CITY, Utah -- January 24, 2008

What do you feel as you look at the image above?  Anger?  Insult?  Manipulation?  Curiosity?  Beauty?  Outrage?  Exploitation?  Tenderness?

Performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, who cradles the twins Madit and Monkor Akot Makoi above, has calculatedly raised the hackles and heated reactions of some from images like those above for years in her work, but she also has a personal commitment to the two babies in the photograph (which also happens to be a Beecroft art exhibit) as she tries to adopt the twins from the Sudan, an ordeal chronicled in Pietra (pronounced Pet-tra) Brettkelly's documentary "The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins", which had its world premiere here, playing five times during the current Sundance Film Festival.

"I started filming thinking that I was doing a documentary on international adoptions -- and discussing that because I think it is an important issue -- and of course it became so much more than that . . . she was this very controversial contemporary artist and a complex character in herself," said Ms. Brettkelly of Ms. Beecroft, who was born in Genoa, Italy in 1969 to an Italian mother and a British father.  Maria Luisa Bertolotti and Andrew Beecroft divorced when Vanessa was barely one or two years old. 

Ms. Brettkelly, who is from New Zealand and has been making documentary films for 12 years, said that she wanted to flesh out the familial landscape of the Beecrofts in "Art Star" to give audiences a guideline to understanding why Vanessa decided not to have additional children with her husband and social anthropologist Greg Durkin (they have two) and go two-thirds of the way around the globe to adopt children from a completely different environment. 

New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly, who set out to do a documentary about international adoption, ended up chronicling Vanessa Beecroft's fight to adopt twins from the Sudan and explored detailed issues of race, class, relationships and culture in the process.

"International adoption is a racial issue"

"When people adopt from another country how they handle that adoption is a racial issue . . . I mean, it's all these questions . . . are we being patronizing in the West by saying our world is better than the developing countries' worlds?  Or are we saying, 'look, whatever the color of a little baby, I can help that child in my world'?", Ms. Brettkelly wondered.  "So it is a racial issue just in itself."  To Ms. Beecroft, questions of race didn't need to be prompted by the director.  "Although obviously those were questions she asked of herself, 'you know, how's this gonna look me being in Long Island, a white woman, a white country, you know, a white society?,'" said Ms. Brettkelly. 

The documentary is complex and Ms. Beecroft is viewed on numerous levels, including one of introspection.  During the two weeks that Ms. Brettkelly filmed Ms. Beecroft in the town of Rumbek in the South Sudan, Beecroft revealed her conflict as she approached adopting Madit and Monkor.  "I want them but do I deserve them?  I'm afraid of the judgment of the people.  The Bishop, the Dinkas, the world.  'Ah, here she is - not that I'm important - another white woman wanting something exotic," said Ms. Beecroft during the film.  Ms. Beecroft, who lives in New York City and at the time was breastfeeding her own children, had never considered adopting children located within the United States but had an immediate, heartfelt connection to the twins, whom she saw at a local orphanage in the Sudan.  After consulting with a bishop in Rumbek, she began breastfeeding Madit and Monkor, who had been left there.  

Of the twins' father, Akot Makoi Tueny, whose wife died while giving birth to them, Ms. Brettkelly said that she "found his consideration of everything incredibly well-thought out" as she filmed in the southern part of the Sudan where much of the documentary is set.  "He said, 'they are the color they are and you're taking them to a white world -- there will be a level of confusion in them.  How will you deal with that?'"  Language differences, religious differences and cultural differences were also a huge concern to Mr. Makoi Tueny.  While Ms. Beecroft pushes buttons during "The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins", which she agreed to be filmed in after meeting Ms. Brettkelly and revealing that she intended to adopt two of the children she saw while visiting Rumbek, there are a lot of consequences to bear, with family structure, relationships and careers being put at immense risk in the process.

Ms. Beecroft had considered living in South Sudan at one point, but whether she felt passionately or realistic about the idea was unclear.  "She feels a comfort there and a familiarity," said Ms. Brettkelly, "which sort of breaks down all the superficiality of our world . . . I can see what the attraction is, but to actually live there full-time, a long time, it's a different call altogether." 

While Darfur in the Western Sudan has a cataclysmic and ongoing genocide occurring, the Southern Sudan by comparison is almost idyllic.  It could be easy for many to forget that there are many more places in Africa than not which aren't war torn or diseased, something which was not far from the minds of the filmmaker and her crew.

Iconography, objectification, art, truth or fetish?  Vanessa Beecroft's work provokes passion, debate, discussion and thought.

Care and concern for Africa, and challenges

In making "Art Star and the Sudanese Twins" Ms. Brettkelly was careful in her approach about chronicling the continent that gave birth to human civilization.  "My cameraman (Jake Bryant) and I had talked about how we wanted to represent Africa . . . and I've spent a lot of time in different African countries and I knew that I didn't want to depict it as poor suffering Africans.  I did feel that (southern) Sudan, over the three times that I'd visited, was becoming -- you know, there was a positivity.  There was a growth in the landscape, and in people going about their business, driving cars and going to school, and going about their work.  And I wanted to depict that.  These people do have a society, and a community and a future, and want the right to vote -- they care about all the things that we care about," Ms. Brettkelly said, who agreed that she didn't want to romanticize or indulge in any of the paternalistic attitudes that the West typically visits upon the African continent in its media coverage. 

"I'm not really interested in putting myself in films, and I'm also not interested in telling stories where I tell people how to think or how to behave or react," Ms. Brettkelly said at one point.

For Pietra Brettkelly both making the documentary and keeping up with the spontaneity of Vanessa Beecroft became a greater challenge over the two weeks of filming.  "It's amazing being around her, you just ride along with it.  She's inspiring, but it's full on, it really is."  She admitted that Ms. Beecroft kept her on her toes.  "Making documentaries, you can't plan a lot of things, but boy, with Vanessa it was, 'we'll meet you at nine and then goodness knows what's going to happen during the day, we'll just go with it!'"  Ms. Brettkelly filmed for over sixteen months and took another year to edit.  "I really grappled with, 'am I doing an artist profile here, am I doing a political documentary, am I doing a personal documentary,  is it just a multicultural documentary, what am I trying to achieve here?'  And that to me was one of my biggest issues.  Trying to work out how I could intersect and intertwine some of the things," as well as tell both sides of the international adoption issue.  The filmmaker called Ms. Beecroft a "genius" and said she has a "strong personality", and confessed that she "didn't always agree with and wasn't always happy with" Ms. Beecroft, and declared that the film had been an "incredibly difficult process."

"It's been a huge risk for me emotionally and financially, but it has been an amazing journey, but goodness me, it's been a trial.  It really has." 

Ms. Brettkelly financed the film virtually unassisted, as New Zealand did not have funding for international film projects. 

The film and the experiences in chronicling southern Sudan was an introspective journey for Ms. Brettkelly and Ms. Beecroft.  "Who's to say that I'm completely correct either?  I mean, Vanessa certainly challenged how I think.  It's a very confrontational film.  Through her actions I thought about myself and how I interact with people, definitely."  The filmmaker says that for Ms. Beecroft the feeling is mutual.  "She has said that watching the film has made her think about how she is and how she operates," Ms. Brettkelly says.

Vanessa Beecroft in Rumbek, Sudan with one of the twins she seeks to adopt, in Pietra Brettkelly's "The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins", which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this week.

Beecroft's Artwork

The image of Ms. Beecroft breastfeeding the twins was interpreted by the director this way: "My understanding of what Vanessa was portraying with that was colonialism.  She's commenting on the arrogance of us, you know, white westerners assuming that -- coming in to developing countries and suckling and nursing the locals . . . and I'm no contemporary art, you know, critic . . . so it's purely what I feel like my eyes picked up -- that was her intention in that image and the fact that she's white, and this Madonna calm kind of image and then these two beautiful black babies right there.  And it's wonderful how one of them is turned and looking directly at camera.  I find that really exciting because it's this quite sort of confrontationally just looking, from the baby."  Ms. Brettkelly added that the colonialist image was her own premise about making her documentary on international adoptions prior to knowing of Ms. Beecroft or her work.  "Is international adoptions the new colonialism?  Are we extracting the best from these developing countries and putting them somewhere else?," said Ms. Brettkelly, who said that Beecroft's work added "another layer" to the filmmaker's exploration of the issue.

Of the artist, Ms. Brettkelly said that "Vanessa, she courts controversy, so she's loving the fact that the image is disrupting people and making them think and talk and having another look, and quite confronted by it.  She's loving that."

In Milan the exhibition of the photograph of Ms. Beecroft and twins Madit and Monkor (formally titled "VB SS South Sudan") received harsh reaction from the Catholic Church, but European audiences were generally supportive and excited by her work, according to the filmmaker.  What shocked people, if anything, was that Ms. Beecroft chose to forgo nudity, which was prominent in most of her artwork over the years.  "In the Sudan she's putting clothes on, and people are going, 'what's Vanessa doing now?'", said Ms. Brettkelly.

Exploitation however, is an inevitable issue when viewing the provocative images rendered by Ms. Beecroft. 

"I think that that's a common point in Vanessa's work," says Ms. Brettkelly.  "People say that she exploits the models, she exploits political ideas . . . I know that she paid everybody (involved in the art) and explained what was going on. . . " said the filmmaker, who was in Italy during an exhibition of another Beecroft art work titled, "Still Death!  Darfur Still Deaf?" (2007), a powerful depiction of the ongoing genocide in Darfur, in which dozens of near-naked African women have been covered in blackface paint from head to toe and lie on a canvas floor in a heap as Ms. Beecroft walks around splashing red paint over and around them.

Models preparing for Vanessa Beecroft's 2007 artwork "Still Death!  Darfur Still Deaf?" in Venice, Italy; Ms, Beecroft splashes and sprinkles paint over the models as part of the "Still Death" performance artwork.

During the Darfur exhibit, Ms. Brettkelly recalled that "someone said to me that Vanessa Beecroft exploits to show exploitation.  I think that was quite interesting, that maybe she is exploiting . . . And do we as viewers of art allow that exploitation to happen, so that there is that kind of commentary happening?  I don't know," the filmmaker said.

Vanessa Beecroft has for years chronicled art full of naked women -- black, Asian and white, and from all over the world -- stark naked, fragile, brittle and lifeless nakedness, almost mannequin like -- the kind of un-sexy imagery that disquieted some in the audiences who saw Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" -- only Ms. Beecroft's models are far less polished and far more stripped down to the bone.  "It's disturbing, it's incredibly disturbing.  I mean, when I first saw (some of Beecroft's performances) I thought, 'I don't know that I'm comfortable looking at these naked women now standing there.'  Who's looking at whom here?  And who's getting what out of what situation?  The audience?  And the women?  But it's all about objectification.  But I don't know.  I think some of it I'm not comfortable with."

Ms. Brettkelly agreed that the way some of the women are lined up in Ms. Beecroft's varied work, which also includes depictions of U.S. military personnel, is not unlike the way that white buyers at an auction for enslaved Africans would leer, inspect and select the fittest person to buy, like "livestock or cattle," she said. 

As for the artist's intentions, in the final analysis Pietra Brettkelly believes that Vanessa Beecroft "definitely has a genuine affection and connection" with Madit and Monkor. 

As for her own film, the director said that "ultimately, I have to sleep with my conscience at night, so I have to make sure that I am happy with it."

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved. 


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