Sitting in a back room of the Babylon Kino, in downtown Berlin, we listened as Fabia Mendoza proudly riffled off the numerous front pages her husband, the artist Ryan Mendoza, had made since the sensational story broke about the relocating of civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ house. We had just watched her documentary The White House, the official backstory to the project. It presents a visual chronicle of how Ryan Mendoza entangles a journey of self-discovery into the current housing blight in Detroit, ultimately rescuing Rosa Parks’ house from the demolition list and re-erecting it in Berlin.
The documentary shows Ryan Mendoza initially traveling to Detroit to acquire a house to send to Europe for an art installation. To the artist’s complete surprise, the White House project generates a slew of negative publicity, casting him as a contributor to the blight and criticizing him for promoting “Ruin Porn.” After a second urban intervention, he gains notoriety as an artist working with blighted houses in Detroit, which eventually leads to Rhea McCauley, Rosa Parks’ niece, approaching him for assistance to save the house where Parks lived in the 1950’s from demolition. Despite initial reservations about playing into a “white savior” stereotype, he takes on the project, stripping the house, packing it up, and rebuilding it alone back in Berlin.
In the Q&A after the screening, a polished, clued up, and prepared Fabia Mendoza, spun the project’s positive media impact. She was at pains to dispel any lingering suspicions about her husband being just another white savior. Yes, there was some controversy, but what was more important was “awareness”, that everyone was now talking about Rosa Parks, she explained. Yet, we wondered, when did people stop talking about Rosa Parks?
The documentary carries the tension of a good story trapped in a short-sighted race-sensitive idea of white male saviors exploiting black culture. The film calls on black working class Detroiters to tell their story about the city, about poverty and the housing crisis. We’re introduced to kids cycling on colorful, pimped-out bikes who tell us about their streets and the city. Later, interlocutors sing or rap for the director, taking advantage of the opportunity to express their black city culture. This is “real Detroit” telling its own truth.
Hearing that Ryan Mendoza wants to relocate a house from Detroit to Germany for his White House project, members of the public initially express surprise but eventually lend their support, perhaps in the belief that it will highlight their plight. And yet, strangely, while it is undeniable that this is about banks and the city of Detroit abandoning poor black folk, the voices the Mendozas coral in this footage often insist that this is not a story about race. It is one about humanity.
Against the black urban mise en scene that is Detroit, Ryan Mendoza appears as an intruder who breaks into scenes with his tallness, his goofy, larger-than-life self. He’s in the houses, down and dirty in the business of demolition. He makes a cameo in a rap song filmed in the aftermath of the demolition of Rosa Park’s house, and is shown as the lonely worker painstakingly rebuilding it again in his courtyard during a cold and dark Berlin winter. You get the sense that for him it is all pomp and drama, deeply felt. When the media coverage gets dark, he delivers candid monologues about how personal a crisis the misunderstandings are.
But what indeed has Ryan Mendoza put up in Berlin? A house, a heritage object, or an art-installation? Is a house still a house when it is dismantled, its frame moved across the world, and reassembled in a courtyard without street access? Berlin regulations do not allow one to simply up and build a house where you like. Fabia Mendoza made it clear: the Rosa Parks House is officially a “temporary installation” and as such is unconnected to utilities, only partially visible from the street, and without an interior. For us at least, this change in state is important. And indeed, members of Miss Parks’ family clarify, remarking in the film and elsewhere how the house is now “in its afterlife.”
Read in this way, Ryan Mendoza has made a personal art project out of a piece of Black history. Herein lies one of the fundamental issues of the white savior complex, a phenomenon nodded at but entirely undigested by the artist. To riff on Teju Cole’s eloquent critique, in this form of the white savior complex, African-American heritage here, and Black heritage more generally, is simply a space onto which white egos can be projected, a space in which any white European or American can satisfy their artistic or emotional needs.
In doing so, even when “making a difference” or “raising awareness”, they draw more attention to themselves than to the issues at stake, inserting themselves into a conversation that fundamentally should never be about them. “It feels good,” notes for example a Berlin Tagesspiegel journalist about Berlin being able to play host to the house. The question is never asked, though, of whether it is important or even necessary that a German city feel good about the legacy of an African-American civil rights icon.
To be clear, as one always needs to be when critiquing the white savior complex in action, this is not racism, nor do we fault the Mendozas for, as far as we can tell, they’re making an effort to help both the Rosa Parks Foundation as well as Detroit and Berlin-based youth social initiatives. Yet we wonder: was the $100,000 raised to disassemble and move the house to Berlin somehow not enough to save the house where it was, or otherwise help the Rosa Parks Foundation on the ground in Detroit? Or were other options simply never considered?
In the end, how far have we come? The problem remains that the story is still about the white savior. It is not about justice but still about the emotional experience that validates privilege. It is only enough to pause and acknowledge, as Ryan Mendoza does before continuing to tear down his first house, that one is white and this should really be about black people.
There is hence no consideration of the other ways in which a person with a certain privilege can attempt to help a community. In the end, Rosa Parks’ house is no longer part of the black heritage landscape in the United States – across the world, Ryan Mendoza’s Rosa Parks House ensures that the artist’s name now has a place next to Miss Parks’ in any conversation about her legacy. Yet, wasn’t this always about his story?
Like so many others, this rescuing of black history comes with a slick sheen of altruism. But for the Mendozas it framed as a struggle, a burden. They never wanted this house. It belongs in the US, they insist. As Ryan Mendoza himself put it, “I would like to see it here for as short a time as possible. I totally love this house but this is not my house. I’m trying to give back as much as possible.” But what is never made clear, however, is what it would take to get the house back – or where exactly it would go.
The house has taken on a life of its own, through educational projects, and art and cultural performances that riff on Rosa Parks’ place in American cultural memory. But in all of this, we cannot help sense that something is not quite right. That the house is out of place here in the outskirts of Berlin. That Rosa Parks’ story fits awkwardly with that of a white European artist seeking to reconnect with his American roots. Somehow, in this fantastic tale of rescue and re-erection, we cannot but shake the feeling that, ultimately, Rosa Parks is simply a famous guest in the big story of Ryan Mendoza’s house.
This post was first published on 18 May 2017 on Africa is a Country.