From Sudan to Sundance, 'Art Star' Questions Celebrity

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

PARK CITY, Utah -- The international art star Vanessa Beecroft knows her story of vanity and obsession is controversial, because controversy is the point. She understands you might dislike her. "I totally agree," she says. "I don't like myself either."

A global art phenomenon, Beecroft is best known as the bard of bulimia (she has serious food issues) and for her infamous performance pieces in which she assembles dozens of naked women, accessorized in wigs or chains or Gucci, and displays them before an audience of elites, who sip champagne and stare.

Beecroft went to Sudan two years ago with a camera crew and photographer because, she says, she was interested in the plight of Darfur, though she concedes that she didn't know exactly where Darfur was, and never did get there.

Instead, she found herself in southern Sudan, where she visited an orphanage, found a pair of malnourished twins and offered each a breast, swollen with milk because she had left her own young child back in New York. Beecroft says she "fell in love" with the twins, that she wanted to "save" them, and began a quixotic quest to adopt the two infant boys.

Beecroft also photographed herself with the twins suckling her breasts. In an interview, she calls the work "a souvenir." The iconographic portrait, of a white-robed Madonna and two black babies, is arresting and disturbing, raising questions about celebrity, race, colonialism, international adoption. Exploitation or liberation? "There's never been anything like the double breast-feeding photo," says Jeffrey Deitch, her former dealer in New York. The photographs are for sale through her gallery in Milan. Beecroft says they sell for $50,000 each. Most of the collectors have been Americans.

This is the story told by New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly in the world premiere of her documentary "The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins" at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie follows Beecroft from the orphanage and Dinka cattle camps in Sudan to her home on Long Island to art exhibits in Milan and Venice. At times Beecroft's behavior is appalling, her motives and methods highly questionable, but it is difficult to turn away, and the more you watch, the more you wonder: What is best for these African children -- to be adopted by a wealthy vain celebrity, an Angelina, a Madonna, a Vanessa (who admits she is a little crazy), or for the babies to live with their relatives in a hut, and take their chances with poverty and disease?

In its review, the Hollywood Reporter concludes, "It probably would have taken a few more years of filming to have answered the most pertinent question: Can this kind of celebrity adoption work out satisfyingly for either parents or children?" The critic from Variety admires the film, writing that "Brettkelly offers an unvarnished picture of her subject, peeling away Beecroft's delusions about her seemingly noble adoption quest." Brettkelly's documentary is presented without narration, leaving the judgment to us. She is seeking a buyer and distributor for the film.

The day after the premiere, Brettkelly and Beecroft visit a photographer's studio at Sundance to have their portraits taken. Beecroft is tall, slender and dressed in black. Brettkelly is tall, slender and dressed in ski clothes. Beecroft is an Italian raised in Italy by an Italian mother (her father is an eccentric Englishman who appears in the film) and she speaks English with a melodic accent. Does she come across well in the film? "I thought, what a freak I am," Beecroft says softly, almost a whisper. "But it was really me."

Though Beecroft is an astute manipulator of media, she comes across in the film as annoying and clueless, like a dangerous child. In person? She seems harmless.

Brettkelly met the art star in Sudan, while the filmmaker was there working on a project on land mines. Beecroft had come because she read a brief article on Darfur in the New York Times.

"When I went I thought I was going to the Darfur area, but I wasn't really familiar with the south or west of Sudan," Beecroft recalls. "As soon as I landed -- because I was nursing my baby at home -- after all those hours of flying, I was in pain. I asked the bishop if he needed mother's milk, because I didn't want to waste the milk, and he handed me to the Sisters of Charity congregation and they brought me to three newborns. The twins and a baby girl. So then I spent two weeks nursing them and taking care of them. Sister Jacqueline kept telling me thank you for being here, and they called me 'the mother milk that comes from the sky,' literally the airplane."

Beecroft learns that the twins are not orphans, but have a father, who appears. The children's mother had died soon after their birth and he has quickly remarried. "I feel bad for the father," she says in the film. "I feel as if I'm stealing his children." But Beecroft persists. On camera she says, "I want them, but do I deserve them? I'm afraid of the judgment of the people, the bishop, the Dinkas, the world. Ah, here she is -- not that I'm important -- another white woman wanting something exotic."

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