August 2, 2016

Nancy Burson’s What If Trump Were: Black-Asian-Hispanic-Middle Eastern-Indian


Burson panel

If Donald Trump’s racism and xenophobia has consistently seeped out during the presidential campaign, the past week has shown his prejudice in its full contagion. Since the Democratic Convention, Trump has become thoroughly engulfed in demeaning a Muslim-American couple that lost their son in the army to the war in Iraq.

The animated GIF above was created by artist Nancy Burson to consider how Trump’s mind works, and to wishfully stir reflection, even empathy, from the mogul’s troubled and malignant soul.

Burson is well qualified to construct such “a moving portrait.” This is the statement and artist background that accompanied the “What if He Were: Black-Asian-Hispanic-Middle Eastern-Indian” project exhibited at the Rose Gallery in LA this past Spring:

Nancy Burson pioneered the use of digital morphing technologies in collaboration with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-‘70’s and has been stretching the limits of portraiture through digital manipulation ever since. Present at the onset of basic image processing techniques devised a decade before the advent of Photoshop, Burson created convincing composite portraits of fictional people, and assisted law enforcement agencies in finding missing children and adults. Her work challenges us to examine the ways in which we see, look, and judge one another’s faces.

About the work on view Burson says, “This project was a commission for a prominent liberal magazine, which ultimately decided not to publish it.  My interest in creating this work was the desire to know what Donald Trump’s reaction might be if he saw the images.  Current research shows that the experience of oneself as another produces an empathetic response within the mirror neutrons of the brain.  The question in my mind was whether Donald Trump’s brain would be affected with an empathetic response upon viewing the work.”

Like the review at HuffPost about this artwork, I agree that Trump’s pathology precludes reflection. It is commonly understood by my clinical colleagues that died-in-the-wool narcissists like Trump cannot accept a shred of weakness, let alone broach self-examination.

That said, though, could we personally apply Burson’s appeal?

Perhaps we can take this study as a challenge to distinguish power and bravado from inferiority, paranoia and self loathing in all shapes and forms. As the Huffington piece also mentions, it’s the smallest amount of DNA that controls skin color, demonstrating how genetically similar we actually all are. Sadly, the world seems more comfortable viewing hate on face value and on a strategic continuum. Putting our racial and ethnic differences in this biological context, however, empathy means recognizing and addressing it equally across the family of man.

 The What If He Were project

(update: revised last paragraph for clarity.)

(images: ©Nancy Burson. Used by Permission. Instagram: @nancyburson)

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Michael Shaw
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