In just over four weeks I will be taking a (extraordinarily long) flight to Cape Town to meet sofagirl. While plotting what to do over the two weeks I will be spending there – besides “elephant stalking” – she asked me whether I would be interested in visiting one of the townships on the outskirts of the city. She had asked me before, on one of my previous visits, and I demurred. I felt it would be inappropriate to walk around, with the comforts of my life on my back, essentially gawking at a slice of humanity who has been a lot less fortunate than me.
The argument in favor for such an excursion is that visits are organized by the local communities, and all the profits are poured back in the community. Still, I feel uncomfortable, maybe even plagued by guilt. I felt the same shame when, scrolling my FB feed, I saw pictures a friend posted while in India, of poor people washing themselves and their clothes in some filthy river: she wasn’t judging, commenting or making fun but I still felt that posting such pictures is not right.
I am not sure where the ethics of “authentic” travels lay anymore. Now that, thanks to the internet, nothing is a discovery anymore, experiences out of our comfort zone are being offered to anyone with a credit card.
Banksy opened a hotel in Bethlehem, The Walled Off Hotel, a few feet from the ugly wall that divides Israel and Palestine. The hotel claims to have “the worst view in the world” and prices range from $30 a night to over $900 for the Presidential suite. People from all over Palestine and Europe flock to it, to gawk at Banksy’s art on the walls and to see how the stateless live.
Again, I am not entirely sure how I feel about it. Now that information is so easily accessible, do I really need to travel to the West Bank to know that living in the West Bank is a nightmare? Or would my hard cash contribution to the local community help?
It could be argued that Banksy’s endeavor is the political arm of his art. And I have no problem with art as activism. In a way, all art is, with a more or less defined point of view. Caravaggio’s revolutionary message was to portray the common people in the street. Diego Rivera opened the curtain over the Mexican struggles. Jimmy Durham, whose retrospective I took in this weekend, put the plight of Native Americans to the forefront. He took his point of view to an extreme, by deciding to leave the United States in 1994 and choosing never to exhibit in a country he despised.
More and more, even in mundane matters of travel, I feel the need to follow the moral compass I have been refining over time. Where the North is, is not always clear. But Jimmy Durham left me with some good advice:
There are seven continents. Each has seven sacred trees [..].Find one that you like and place your own umbilical cord or its equivalency among the tree’s branches. Do not salute.
All images from Jimmy Durham – At the Center of the World on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until May 7 2017.