Location: Venice Biennale – Event: VB61: Darfur – Still Death, Still Deaf?
Thirty African women lie face down on a white canvas on the floor of a fish market. Their eyes are shut, their bodies motionless. There is no talking and no sound. The artist Vanessa Beecroft, makes wide, wild red paint strokes over their naked bodies. Genocide. Darfur. Jackson Pollock. The artist’s ability to create a visual image that stings the mind. Cameras flash, video cameras roll.
the art star and the sudanese twins follows Vanessa Beecroft’s intentions to adopt orphaned twins, Madit and Mongor Akot, and how this bleeds into her art and her personal life.
Vanessa Beecroft operates in the world of high art and high society. Over the last few years Vanessa has been drawn to Africa and then ultimately to the Sudanese twins she met in an orphanage. As New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch states, with Vanessa there is no boundary between life and art. Alongside the adoption process she has photographed herself breast-feeding the twins, incorporating them into her provocative work.
But what cost to her personal life?
For sixteen months the art star and the sudanese twins follows Vanessa as with an often brutal honesty, she exposes the truth about her life – her creative process, her struggle with depression, her volatile relationship with her husband, and her love for the twins.
Vanessa found the undernourished babies in an orphanage, on her first day, on her first visit to Sudan. She had been breastfeeding her own child prior to flying to the Sudan.
She wanted to ‘save’ them – she spent months trying to adopt them – but is she just another wealthy white celebrity seeking to adopt an exotic child? Vanessa asks herself that same question.
Her husband Greg initially knew nothing of her adoption moves and then was horrified by her intentions.
“Is adopting these two children from this village, helping them, saving them, is that the best we can do as a family? I don’t know. I think that’s kind of almost like a short-cut, its almost too selfish. I can fill my needs by bringing them into my world because its far easier for me to deal with things in my world.”
Greg Durkin, Vanessa’s husband and social anthropologist
Vanessa Beecroft’s work is provocative and controversial – she has gained notoriety with her nude tableaux – dozens of naked women standing motionless in stark locations. The critics could never decide if it was feminism or exploitation.
Without the knowledge of her husband, on her third visit to South Sudan, Vanessa attempts to adopt the twins. In a shell-shocked building the father of the twins puts his thumbprint to 10 copies of an affidavit.
“An American girl may not go for a Sudanese man. Socially they are misfits. This is not the way for this world to go ahead, this is not the way.”
Bishop Mazzolari, Bishop of Rumbek
“I want them but do I deserve them? I’m afraid of the judgement of the people. The Bishop, the Dinkas, the world. Ah here she is – not that I’m important – another white woman wanting something exotic.”
Alongside the fireworks of her personal life, we witness her artistic drive. A photo session is interrupted with a hammering on the church doors – women from the orphanage want the twins back. Vanessa is photographing them naked which upsets their local customs.
“Vanessa Beecroft is one of very few artists who has developed a fresh way to make a work of art. It’s uncanny. This is a new focus – there’s never been anything like the double breastfeeding photo. It is a disturbing beauty.”
Jeffrey Deitch, New York Gallerist
On her return to life with her family in New York and completing her Sudan artwork for an exhibition in Milan, Vanessa tries to encourage her husband, Greg to complete the adoption paperwork. Greg offers her a divorce.
“Just because they don’t know the certain things we call luxuries it doesn’t mean that we’re better than them. I don’t see that dimension at all.”
On the streets of New York, Vanessa breaks down with the reality her personal life cannot be controlled like her art.
“My situation is falling apart I think. With Greg it’s falling apart, I am rolling off a cliff.”
We follow Vanessa to Milan and Rome exhibitions, we interview her English father, and her Italian mother who contributes to our understanding of a their daughter.
the art star and the sudanese twins is a timely documentary exploring the first world woman’s aspirations to adopt from a developing country. And the risks to her marriage and her career that one woman takes to “save” Sudanese twins.
Having travelled and worked in numerous developing countries including Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, Romania and Russia, the signs of growth in international adoptions has become more and more apparent. Adoption agency advertising at airports, foreign couples carrying racially different babies on the streets of Hanoi or Mexico City.
As an explorer of relationships and stories, it interested me – the concept of family, of maternal and paternal love across cultures. And whether as the supposed privileged in the world – the West – this was the way we could help those countries in need.
Or is international adoption a form of colonialism?
I first met Vanessa Beecroft in February 2006 in South Sudan. I was making a documentary on landmines. Vanessa was exploring the Sudan. In a town called Rumbek the foreigners – largely UN workers, Non-Government Organisations and private security – could rent a tent by the night. And in this settlement around a tree each evening the foreigners would meet to drink beer and eat popcorn and discuss the country with ink barely dry on a peace agreement, Sudan having just come out of a 21 year civil war.
Around the bar one night my team spotted her team. Vanessa was with Alexa her German-assistant, Matthu her New York photographer and Paul a local who Vanessa was funding through university in Nairobi. They did not wear the uniform of other foreigners – khakis and a satellite mobile phone. I recall she told me she was a performance artist. I had no idea what that meant. In fact I remember going on about my childhood training in ballet, such was my ignorance of performance art.
My team and I left a few days later for the Ethiopian border. We swapped email addresses with Vanessa’s team, and she told me she was thinking of adopting a set of twins currently living at the local orphanage. A few days later I emailed Vanessa and said I would like to follow her on the adoption journey if she agreed.
She said she was leaving Africa but would be back in about a month and would be open to the documentary.
For the next sixteen months I filmed Vanessa. And what is for me the fascination of documentary-making came to the fore – the initial story became so much more complex as I filmed one of the world’s top contemporary artists, and the power of South Sudan increasingly informing her work, and her private life.
I was blessed with a willingness in the people in Vanessa’s life – her staff, her parents, her husband and her dealers. And in her husband, Greg Durkin and her father, Andrew Beecroft were two eloquent interview subjects with strong views on international adoptions.
My Director of Photography, Jake Bryant and I went to nine overseas destinations to film and piece together the story, twice travelling to Sudan.
Vanessa had never allowed cameras such access before. But I’ve been flattered by her willingness to be honest – usually brutally so – creating a film of incredible intimacy and revelation that will hopefully provoke further discussion not just on international adoptions but on the licence of creatives, of a genius at work, of notions of family. And where family stems from.
TERMINAL FIVE TWA JFK, NYC, 2004
NIC TENWIGGENHORN, VANESSA BEECROFT
VB SS SOUTH SUDAN, 2006
PHOTO: MATTHU PLACEK
I couldn’t have done it without you
ARTHUR AND MADELEINE BRETTKELLY
PAUL HENRY AND WENDY PETRIE
THE ‘SAVE THE DOCO MAKER’ COMMITTEE AND SUPPORTERS
AKOT MAKOI TUENY AND FAMILY
GREG DURKIN AND FAMILY
BISHOP MAZZOLARI AND THE DIOCESE OF RUMBEK, SUDAN
THE PEOPLE OF GALLERIA LIA RUMMA AND GALLERIA MININI
THE PEOPLE OF VANESSA BEECROFT LLC
ALL THOSE WHO ASSISTED IN THE MAKING OF THIS FILM
VANESSA BEECROFT AND
MADIT AND MONGOR AKOT MAKOI
“The film, much discussed after its premiere at this year’s Sundance festival and now making the festival rounds, has a stereoscopic quality–one lens revealing fearless determination, the other startling self-absorption.” Charles Koppelman, LA Times Magazine
“A stunning film… operates on multiple levels.” Susan G Cole, NOW Toronto magazine
“The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins wins Best Editing, World Documentary at Sundance!”
“…a brutally honest, remarkably self-critical reflection on foreign adoption that touches unexpectedly on issues of alienation and loneliness.” Carino Chocano, LA Times
“I quickly felt I was before you in the hands of a master storyteller.” Still in Motion
“Pietra Brettkelly’s engimatic rendering … is not a straightforward artist’s profile, political commentary or domestic drama, but a poetic fusion of the three.” Peter Debruge, Variety
“Writer director Pietra Brettkelly’s expertly architected melodrama allows the details of this complex story of Western perceptions of the third world, acts of questionable respect in the name of art-making and a critique of an artist as a human being, to unfold at the right moments.” Margot Gerber, Film Threat
“I thought, what a freak I am,” Beecroft says softly, almost a whisper. “But it was really me.” William Booth, Washington Post
“Three and a half out of four stars … a passionate film about a most passionate person.” Jonathan Hickman, einsiders.com
“…worth waiting for. Sundance hasn’t lost its soul.” Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com
“Director Pietra Brettkelly examines the process of international adoption with scrutiny. “The ‘celebrity adoptions’ don’t show how hard mentally and physically adoption is, and the impact it has on both families,” Brettkelly says. “We just see images of the happy-ever-after scenario.” Joseph V Amodio, Special to Newsday
“Lady Madonna, Children at her Teat.” Greg.org
“Brettkelly’s portrayal of the arrogant see-sawing artist-cum-concerned creative-type is both dizzying and dazzling.” Elliot V. Kotek, Moving Picture Magazine
“…one of my favorites of the fest. For me, “Art Star” will haunt me with images and ideas, as a great work of art — or film– should.” The art stars of Sundance, Glen Helfand, SF360
“The film is fantastically complex, and strikes a tension-filled balance.” Laurie Koh, Films Arts Foundation
“I just love it. She is infuriating and fascinating. I hope HBO or PBS pick it up.” Filmspotting podcast
“..an unmitigated verite doc… bring us closer to an artist’s life, work and vision.” Sarah Keenlyside, Daily Insider Sundance ’08
“This timely docu fascinates and frustrates.”
By Stephen Farber, Hollywood.com
“Brettkelly offers an unvarnished picture of her subject, peeling away Beecroft’s delusions about her seemingly noble adoption quest.” Peter Debruge, Varieyt
“Director Pietra Brettkelly’s film offers a troubling but even-handed look at the impassioned, wilful, and controversial Beecroft.” Glen Helfand, artinfo.com
“Cameras rolling, Brettkelly follows Beecroft over a difficult 16-month period that…. witnesses Beecroft at her most candid moments.” Nathan Southern, All Movie Guide
“Brangelina Does Not Star in This Sundance Documentary About Foreign Adoption
“Over the incessant chatter about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s brood of adopted children and Madonna’s Malawian baby comes this – artist Vanessa Beecroft, known for her live performance works involving nude women, has decided to become mother to Sudanese twins, and a documentary of her efforts will be featured at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival opening next week in Park City, Utah. ” CondeNast Portfolio.com