THE NAKED WOMAN is only visible when my manager’s door is open – when closed it is unclear what the painting depicts. From my desk I can make out the faint outline of a woman’s back through the frosted glass wall that partitions her office from the open-plan workplace. It reminds me of the European masters I studied in undergraduate art history, and the ironic way the portraits of high art have been reduced to cheap office furnishings. It’s not until the third or fourth time I walk past my manager’s office, with her door ajar, that I notice another woman in the image. She is African, and her tall frame hovers delicately over the white woman’s plump flesh as she gently sponges her shoulder. Seeing the poster in full view illuminates an unpleasant moment in history, and is like walking in on act you weren’t meant to see.
A Google search reveals that the poster is a copy of Moorish Bath by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. It is unsettling to imagine that, as my colleagues and I work, our manager sits at her Huon-pine desk scrutinising the reports and policies we prepare while the image of an African slave washing her white mistress hangs behind her. The ugly juxtaposition is heightened by the nature of our work, making her decision to display an act of slavery particularly perverse: she is the manager of community advocacy for a local council with the highest number of refugee and asylum seekers in Australia. She is a white woman in a position of power working in a community where many women of colour are isolated and discriminated against. And she fails to recognise the abhorrent message the poster represents.
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