When Laura Eka and her husband Ebong set out on the MSC Seaview from Barcelona earlier this month to celebrate their honeymoon, they were shocked to find a bizarre blackface portrait aboard the new ship. In the painting, hung in a corridor that passengers could not avoid walking past, a man with a pitch-black face — but a white hand — and exaggerated red lips leers at a white woman in a red dress while gripping one of her arms.
“This is what I’m seeing right now, in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, on our honeymoon,” says Ebong, 43, who lives with his wife in Washington, D.C. He was flabbergasted by the racist caricature, which he first saw when he was walking along and then later pointed out to his wife, who was infuriated by the bizarre and offensive depiction.
“This decision wasn’t made in a vacuum; there were multiple levels of approval, multiple people who said, ‘Yeah, these pictures should go here,'” Ebong says.
Laura and her husband, who is black, felt “unwelcome and uncomfortable” aboard the ship, she says. “You had to walk by it every day and remind yourself that you’re not welcome here.”
“We are aware a guest complained about this Belle Époque artwork, and as soon as we received such feedback, we immediately took action to remove the visual,” a spokesperson for MSC Cruises wrote in a statement emailed to New Times. “We’re sorry if this offended anyone.”
The couple’s encounter with the blackface artwork aboard the MSC Seaview was first reported by Jim Walker, a Miami maritime lawyer and publisher of Cruise Law News. Ebong, a certified public accountant, entrepreneur, and business consultant; and Laura, director of marketing for a financial research firm, celebrated their wedding just before setting sail on the cruise in a ceremony that brought together both of their cultures.
Photos from Laura and Ebong’s wedding show the couple under a chuppah and in traditional Nigerian dress.
Courtesy of Laura Eka
“I tried to handle it privately at first,” says Laura, who believes that normalizing racist caricatures such as the one aboard the Seaview is unacceptable. “But they have refused to answer. It’s surprising to me that the haven’t responded at all.” So Laura took to Twitter to call out MSC Cruises for the caricature after having her initial complaints to the cruise line ignored. As of this morning, MSC Cruises still has not responded to the couple.
However, MSC told New Times it has removed the painting and “extend[s] our sincerest apologies if this offended anyone. Racism or discrimination have no place in society or on board our ships.”
MSC Cruises is a global cruise line that was founded in Italy, is registered in Switzerland, and is headquartered in Geneva. The MSC Seaview is a brand-new ship, having just been deployed this past June.
Laura and Ebong say there was a large group of black veterinarians from the United States on the cruise who were also offended by the image. “They had their friends and family with them; it was a big group,” Laura says. “We were all talking about it. They were pretty upset too.”
America has a storied history with blackface — especially the kind aboard the Seaside, featuring exaggerated red lips and very dark skin — as a racially insensitive representation of African-Americans that contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes. The image aboard the Seaview is especially troubling because of its portrayal of the man in blackface lusting after the white woman.
Reproduction of a poster from the 1900s for a comedy show.
White performers in New York began donning blackface (using burnt cork or shoe polish) and rags in the 1830s to imitate slaves on plantations. “These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice,” reads a post about blackface on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website.