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Gold to Miss Landmine
by Alf van der Hagen, editor-in-chief, Morgenbladet, weekly 25.06.07

Tomorrow the exhibition ”Miss Landmine” will open at the Museum of Leprosy in Bergen. Morgenbladet wrote about the project already one and a half year ago. Now Norwegian and African feminists are criticising the artist Morten Traavik, who received half a million kroner from Arts Council Norway and USD 15000 from Angolan authorities.

But Miss Landmine is an artistically valuable project. It deserves both funding, attention and ethical debate. Traavik has staged a beauty pageant for Angolan women with landmine injuries. On the website , those who are interested can watch pictures and read about the project’s background. The models are presented with name, age, hometown, civil status, dream job and favourite colour – and the date of the landmine accident. Here, ten ordinary-looking young African women have signed up voluntarily and been photographed in tastefully fashionable lighting, on the beach or in various other luxurious surroundings. What the women have in common is that they lack a leg after having stepped on a landmine. That is a grotesque fate. But they have survived. Another common trait is that they come across as relaxed and comfortable in the photographs, carrying themselves with pride and dignity.

These are beautiful photographs of people who find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder in the African country Angola, second only to Afghanistan in the world regarding number of unexploded landmines still in the ground.

Morten Traavik is courageous, for he is not pretending that the project is some kind of gender-political criticism of beauty pageants as such. He avoids falling into the same trap as the [Norwegian] artist Liv Bugge did when she picked up an illegal immigrant on the streets of Brussels and offered him work as a model. Then she filmed the young black man on all fours, forehead to the floor, while three white men covered him in white plaster. Bugges’s agenda was to “stir a debate”. Here, the ethical problem posed is this: “Can the artist turn herself into perpetrator to put a problem in the spotlight?”

The answer obviously is no. A staged mass rape as intened criticism of war-related sexual violence is evil, no matter how much attention it would raise or defend itself as “conceptual” or “relational” art. The art scene is full of artists who themselves stage the immorality that they claim to be criticising. Traavik doesn’t do that. He doesn’t berate the beauty pageants (and, accordingly, is met with criticism from feminists for playing with sterotypes about gender and culture). But he is on the offensive, and claims that the project is based on the local culture’s own terms, where beauty pageants are a popular cultural phenomenon.

Of course Traavik is a clever director, and of course the project doesn’t save the situation for the 80.000 disabled Angolans that have stepped on landmines. But Traaviks presents people,
not as victims, but as people – who want to live. People who want to be seen. And whom we see. And precisely because we are never quite sure about the ethics of the art project, the reality behind it has an even stronger effect reflecting back at us.

Imagine what it’s like to grow up in a country devastated by civil war, where more than one million bombs are buried, waiting for the number 80 000 to turn into 81 000 and 82 000.

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