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The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins

(US DVD: 27 Oct 2009)

The Art of Adoption

International adoption of Sudanese infant twins Mongor and Madit Akot is the focus of Pietra Brettkelly’s latest documentary, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins. The “art star” who wants to adopt the twins is Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft. Writing about the “star” phenomenon in Heavenly Bodies, film scholar Richard Dyer writes that, “Stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people.” 


Using Dyer’s definition, Beecroft’s fame probably does not rise to the level of “star”. Though internationally known to art scholars and elites who sip champagne while viewing her work, “Vanessa Beecroft” is not exactly a household name. Even Brettkelly had no idea who the artist was until their chance meeting in the small town of Rumbek, Sudan in 2006. Nevertheless, by using the word “star” to refer to her subject, Brettkelly makes a connection between Beecroft, celebrity, and bonafide stars who have been involved in international adoption. 


Beecroft’s husband, Greg Durkin, who also appears in the film, makes specific mention of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Madonna, noting that their celebrity status has brought a lot of attention to international adoption.  Durkin adds that missing from these romanticized versions of adoption is a “cultural sensitivity” for the children and the people of the countries from which the children are being adopted.


Though Art Star avoids making any explicit political comment, it does bring some of these cultural sensitivities to the fore. On one occasion, for example, Rumbek’s Catholic Bishop, Cesare Mazzolari tells Beecroft straight out that adoption is not the way to solve Sudan’s problems. Referring to the thousands of boys who were orphaned or otherwise displaced during the Sudanese Civil War, Mazzolari says he detests the term, “The Lost Boys of Sudan” and considers the fate of these children a very sophisticated form of slavery. Mazzolari insists that in Africa no child is “lost” because one always has extended family.


Art Star also brings to light the fact that many so-called orphans are not really orphans at all. Such is the case with Mongor and Madit. Their mother died in childbirth.Their father, however, is still alive. 


In a meeting with Beecroft, the father, who cannot read nor write, makes it clear that if the adoption goes through he still expects to see his children from time to time. He wants the twins to learn the Dinka language, and know their culture. In one of many such moments in which Beecroft reveals total awareness of her actions’ impropriety—(and then forges straight ahead with her plans, anyway)—she remarks, “I feel bad for the father; I feel I’m stealing his children.”


Making further reference to stardom, Art Star weaves into its storytelling the very tension that sustains the concept of stardom, the tension that exists between a star’s personal life and her professional life. Beecroft traveled to Sudan with her assistant and a photographer. Presumably, on her first trip she went there only to work, not to pursue adoption. Yet when Beecroft arrived in Rumbek she was in pain because her breasts were full with milk from recently breastfeeding her own infant. She asked if there were any children in need of milk, and was introduced to Mongor and Madit.


Why Beecroft left her home in New York for Africa while still lactating doesn’t make a lot of sense. But there is a lot about Beecroft’s personal motivations that don’t make sense, including her attempt to adopt the twins without informing her husband. Thus for Brettkelly, what started out as a documentary about adoption expanded into a narrative that interrogates Beecroft’s psyche, and examines the artist at work.


In Sudan Beecroft creates a photography project, using some of Rumbek’s citizens as models, including the twins. One photo shoot takes place in the church. While Beecroft works, the townspeople mill around outside and peer through windows. When one of the townswomen realizes that Beecroft intends to photograph the twins in the nude, she becomes incensed, storms into the church, and demands that the children remain clothed. This causes quite a commotion. 


Again, instead of respecting Sudanese customs, Beecroft has the “intruders” removed from their own church, then barricades the door shut. Thus, the process of staging the photographs becomes a performance piece itself, and the resulting photographs, tableaux of the West’s exploitation and appropriation of Africa.


Beecroft’s intended performance work is also unsettling. Many consist of large groups of women, often nude, and dressed in peculiar style: nude models in bright red wigs; nude models with gray hair and ponytails, wearing black thigh-high boots; or women wearing nothing but pantyhose. While the models for Beecroft’s earlier artwork appear to be primarily white women, later black women are incorporated.


Given the West’s history of constructing the female body as racially dichotomous, responding to the latter work is challenging. That sometimes Beecroft’s black models are painted in black makeup from head to toe renders the work even more contentious.


Art Star opens with shots of Beecroft preparing to stage VB61 Still Death! Darfur, a piece inspired by her trip to Rumbek. The film closes with footage of the performance. Emulating “action painting” and Jackson Pollock, Beecroft splashes red paint over a white canvas covered with sprawling black bodies made up in black paint. Art Star gives us ample reason to resist the person, the artist and her work.Yet as performed by Beecroft and choreographed by the filmmakers, it is difficult not to be moved by VB61.


DVD extras include Brettkelly’s audio commentary, deleted scenes, as well as the theatrical trailer. Action that takes place in Sudan is occasionally difficult to follow. The Director’s commentary fills in some of the gaps. 


Those interested in art, yet unfamiliar with Beecroft’s work, may find the deleted chapter “Vanessa’s Book” informative. For some reason, it is reassuring to know that the artist finds her own performance work with nudes just as disturbing as her audience does. Beyond selfishness, Art Star offers no clear-cut explanation of Beecroft’s desire to adopt the twins. The deleted scene “Vanessa at Khartoum Hospital” offers a humane side to the artist’s madness and motivations that never really comes across in the film.

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