Aruna D’Souza’s Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts


Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts is an exploratory case study in institutional racism as it has manifested in the New York City art world over the past half century. Centering public protest as the platform of the oppressed—and, in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “riot as the language of the unheard”—author Aruna D’Souza offers an uncensored look at the role black artists, activists, and their allies have played in forging more equitable practices within the field of contemporary art. In each instanceDana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) in the 2017 Whitney Biennial; Artists Space’s 1979 exhibition The Nigger Drawings; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind— “artistic freedom” emerges as the linchpin in arguments defending these lessons in cultural appropriation, exclusion, and fetishization. In response, D’Souza interrogates the ethical limitations of freedom,and brilliantly presents all sides of these moral arguments without slipping into an #AllSidesMatter perspective. Rather, she puts her own privilege at risk by applying her intimate knowledge and power of observation to rewrite art history through a broader lens. She adopts a clear stance as ally, defender of truth, and witness who—by her own confession—“strays from journalist to partisan to historian to protester,” as the book unfolds.

D’Souza disclaims her evolving editorial stance early on, characterizing it as a symptom of her shifting intimacy with the key players, institutions and protests that comprise each act. In “Act 1: Open Casket, Whitney Biennial, 2017,” she recounts a series of heated, public debates provoked by Dana Schutz’s aesthetic appropriation of the image of slain and mutilated Emmet Till. Instead of sensationalizing the outrage that the white painter’s appropriative gesture produced in the black community, D’Souza republishes unedited statements by black artists and writers issued on social media and during the Whitney’s public program Perspectives on Race and Representation: An Evening with the Racial Imaginary Institute, which was developed in response to the protests. Quoting Parker Bright, Lorraine O’Grady, Devin Kenny, Lyle Ashton Harris, Elizabeth Alexander, and Hannah Black to name a few, D’Souza abdicates the first pages of the book to those whose lived experiences inform her own art historical research. Through this subversive act, she transforms social media into powerful, primary source material that disrupts the historical role race has played in defining who holds the power to speak freely. While D’Souza publishes Black’s open letter in full, the following excerpt poignantly articulates a root issue explored in all three acts—the aesthetic appropriation, materialization, and commodification of black life:

Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.

Adopting a journalistic yet emotionally invested tone, D’Souza places this art historical moment within the broader context of socio-political unrest and moral bankruptcy in this country. She expounds, “The statement went viral—a fact all the more extraordinary because this wasn’t, after all, a meme or a news article or a cat video. It was more like an aesthetico-political manifesto, an invitation to take part in a process of truth and reconciliation, and evidence of an open wound.” Here, D’Souza’s partisan voice rings loud and clear as she underscores the difficult work that lies ahead, and builds upon Black’s argument through a language all her own.

In one of the first reviews of the book, published on Hyperallergic, Steph Rodney criticizes D’Souza for “hedging her bets” through “wishy-washy” language in “Act 1,” a critique that disavows her unique ability to bridge the diverse perspectives she pulls into focus whilst simultaneously asserting her own political voice. Her measured approach is rooted in solidarity, placing deep trust in what has already been written, and inviting those voices to crescendo in unison, conjuring the energy and urgency of protest itself. Knowingly, D’Souza takes up the thread that weaves these complex arguments into coexistence, thus fortifying the protestors’ call for a code of ethics to which we can hold our public institutions—and the voices they themselves privilege—accountable. “Schutz’s claim that she seized on the image of Emmett Till as a way to process the state of recent murders of black youth sounded to many like sidestepping her own relationship to the historical processes that resulted in these deaths,” she explains. “Schutz made Open Casket from an aesthetic and social vantage point that left a glaring blind spot: the complicity of whiteness, and of white womanhood, in those events.” D’Souza practices what she preaches, asserting that empathetic allyship demands a readiness to cede power and privilege over to those doing the work to both dismantle and survive the injustice. 

In “Act 2: The Nigger Drawings, Artists Space, 1979,” D’Souza adopts a more distanced tone in retelling this art historical standoff between protestors advocating for publicly-funded institutions to adopt more inclusive practices, and defenders of “free speech” upholding anti-censorship by any means necessary. Here, the precarious intersections of liberalism, capitalism, institutionalism, and race shine through in her tightly-curated series of correspondences between The Emergency Coalition—comprised of pioneers in contemporary black art Janet Henry, Lowery Stokes Sims, Linda Goode Bryant, and Howardena Pindell—and the supporters of Artists Space’s decision to mount an exhibition by a white, male artist entitled The Nigger Drawings. In “Act 2,” D’Souza centers institutions—such as the New York State Council on the Arts and Artists Space—as the starting point of her investigation, a marked shift from her artist-centered approach in “Act 1.” Following suit, she does not begin her critique by discrediting Donald, the artist who arrived at the title of his exhibition by observing his white charcoal-covered arms and imagining himself a nigger. Rather, she begins by studying the cultural infrastructures through which Donald was both enabled and emboldened to outwardly and brashly exercise his white privilege.

D’Souza quickly exposes the glaring ethical and logical omissions to the liberal argument that The Nigger Drawings was a radical, subversive act capable of undoing the violent, racist and white supremacist history of the word nigger. She asserts, “There is a contradiction at the heart of our idea of open dialogue: while it seems to depend on leaving open space for ambiguity, uncertainty, and the contingent, it is grounded in—and perhaps even depends on—de facto limits of who can speak and what can be said.” Once more, D’Souza aligns with the protestors’ call for accountability and peels back the veil used by those in positions of power to assert their own first amendment rights whilst simultaneously sidestepping the difficult conversations that arise as a consequence of their actions. With due diligence, D’Souza also revisits the counterargument put forth by Donald and his institutional allies—that the exhibition delivered value to rather than drew value from conversations on race by ushering us all into a post-black era. D’Souza quotes art critic and editor Craig Owens to expose the absurdity of this claim: “‘Because of the nature of their work,’ he concluded, “the artists who show at Artists Space and avail themselves of its services have…been denied access to the commercial gallery and museum power structure. In this sense, they are all ‘niggers.’” Here, D’Souza delivers us to the same sad conclusion we drew from “Act 1”—that, when confronted with their own complicity, arts institutions and those they sanction would rather intellectualize and formalize racist practices, than take pause to audit and amend their behavior.

In “Act 3: Harlem on My Mind, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969,” D’Souza steps into the role of archaeologist, unearthing the genesis of the contemporary art world’s selective moral compass when it comes to race and representation. She investigates the authenticity of The Met’s claim that the controversial exhibition—which did not include a single black artist—was dedicated “to the people of Harlem—past, present, and future—as a record of their achievements.” In this final act, D’Souza—much like The Emergency Coalition—explores what civic participation looks like between black communities and the cultural institutions that so often exclude and objectify them. She astutely observes that the exhibition “was subtitled Cultural Capital of Black America. The irony of the wording is perhaps only apparent in retrospect. It hinges on the double meaning of capital—a term that refers to Harlem as a place, of course, but also hints at the way in which blackness is traded as a currency, a form of that other kind of capital.” D’Souza resurfaces the forgotten details and unburies the ugly truth that African-Americans were never considered artists or experts in this context and were only granted a seat at the institutional table as artifacts for display.

Whitewalling is a strong call to action in which D’Souza summons her many identities—writer, art critic, feminist, educator, museum consultant, and protestor—to encourage those with a vested interest in sustainable culture to fight for social justice. She exposes the power imbalances that hide within the dark corners of our public institutions, and shines a light on those brave citizens tending to the arduous, daily work of dismantling systems of oppression. And despite its somewhat somber conclusions about the depth of white supremacist roots within the field of contemporary art, this book achieves small yet vital victories: it names those historical offenders who institutionalized racist practices without hesitation or consequence and offers a counter narrative to the biased, historical record; it galvanizes a community of practice and articulates a collective language of resistance across disciplines and racial lines; and it de-vilifies black protest by not just depicting us in our rage, but by also seeing and documenting us in our hope.

Phoebe Boswell: Take Me to the Lighthouse

As I lay in that hospital bed, attached to the machine, in the high dependency cardiac wing, eye bulbous and blurry, the woman in the bed next to me kept calling out to the darkness, “Take me to the lighthouse,” delirious, and I kept wondering how on earth I got here, where on earth my lighthouse was, and how I was going to begin to process it all. 1

  Phoebe Boswell,   I Hear My Voice Clear, Here Between Things  , 2018, Charcoal and Pastel on Paper, 48.0 in x 27.3 in (121.9 cm x 69.3 cm)

Phoebe Boswell, I Hear My Voice Clear, Here Between Things , 2018, Charcoal and Pastel on Paper, 48.0 in x 27.3 in (121.9 cm x 69.3 cm)

A profoundly layered and probing exhibition, Take Me To The Lighthouse posits a simple yet sage premise—that life cuts, water heals, and light reveals even in the darkest circumstances. Earlier this year, Kenyan-British artist Phoebe Boswell emerged from an unrelenting series of traumatic events that served as the genesis for this new body of highly vulnerable and deeply sentient work. In this selfless survey of loss, grief, and triumph, Boswell presents an interlocking web of artistic gestures, in which her trace and pain are perpetually felt.

Minute rectangular voids are clipped from her raging, charcoal seascapes and strewn about the gallery as remote islands, as in You Won’t Hear Me There (2018); intrepid, figurative marks are cast atop the sea of white walls, illuminating a horizon line along which the artist’s self-image rises and sets, as in her site-specific installation Take Me To The Lighthouse (2018); and intimate self portraits are clustered together amidst vast landscape portraits as if to balance the weight of—and collapse the distance between—the part and the whole.

As the titles suggests, the artworks in this exhibition ebb and flow around notions of homecoming and deliverance, each creating sacred space in which to anchor shared explorations of Diasporic consciousness, cultural inheritance, and ancestral debt. As a transnational, multi-disciplinary artist interrogating the complexities of global citizenship, Boswell embraces technology to help navigate various states of being, becoming, and belonging. From a video installation of her body adrift at sea—whose position on the floor demands a posture of reverence from its viewers—to the immersive and undulating waves of spoken word soundscapes that surround it, Boswell translates digital language into a raw, analog, and fluid aesthetic that conjures the mystery of the deep sea. Even her drawings on paper take on a digital aspect, as the voids she cuts from them come to embody pixels that abandon the image of origin to take refuge in those liminal spaces that characterize diasporic existence.

To truly appreciate this exhibition is to dive deep into the world Boswell generously shares and creates—to weigh the anchor on all we think we know of life’s pain, and transcend beyond the self to interrogate suffering as a shared, global reality. In conversation with Boswell’s gallery Sapar Contemporary, it became clear that these intense life events—which took a significant toll on the artist’s physical, spiritual, and emotional health—inspired Boswell to approach this body of work with a sense of urgency, and duty—not just for herself, but for her communities as well.

Perhaps due to the sheer weight of the load—the loss of vision in her right eye, the loss of a lover, the consequent rupture to her physical and emotional hearts, and the medical dependency on others this produced—Boswell entered into deep philosophical investigation, calling upon folklore, oral histories, and her own body to create a shared language for balancing grief. This exploration is strikingly captured in her video, A Broken Heart (2018), which grants viewers a glimpse into the artist’s pain in the form of an angiogram that illuminates her quite literally broken heart. Through this and other visual languages Boswell creates, she asks: Is grief a language in and of itself? If so, how does it sound and what does it look like? Where is it safe to grieve, to give utterance to grief? And which aspects of grief must we hold dear, and which can we cast out?

 Phoebe Boswell,  Ythlaf . Single channel video. Courtesy Sapar Contemporary and the artist.

Phoebe Boswell, Ythlaf. Single channel video. Courtesy Sapar Contemporary and the artist.

In her video Ythlaf (2018), the artist floats weightless amidst converging art, personal, and collective histories at the shoreline between Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. A persistent soundtrack of intense breathwork—activated by visitors’ footfall on floor sensors surrounding the work—weaves together moving images of Boswell lying, dancing, grieving, playing, escaping, and free-floating on the shore, all of which were shot in collaboration with her father, using his drone. A moving meditation, this video affirms the power of water to bring one towards and drive one from the inner self, and notions of family and home. It celebrates the healing power of water whilst recalling the historic traumas water holds, such as the Middle passage and other sad freedoms, visualized in moments where the artist transcends and abandons her own body at the contemplative space between land and sea. Like all of us, water is in a constant state of becoming, and possesses the innate quality of constant change—it freezes, clusters, flows, steams, and ripples in response to its environment. Here, Boswell summons water as a superpower to freeze her pain, buoy her spirit, and flood the dams of her emotional blocks.

Boswell’s biography reads, “Although Boswell was born in Nairobi, she was brought up in the Arabian Gulf. Growing up as an expatriate, she reveals that she felt, ‘amputated from Kenya, in a way,’ admitting, ‘I do not exist there, it is not my place.’ The fragility of her Kenyan identity, and this rootless aspect of her being, ignites her work with a delicate search for belonging, through which her art becomes a vehicle that drives her on her journey home.” 2 Boswell is not alone in this feeling of disjointed or fractured identity—now more than ever, people live at vast geographic and emotional distances from their homelands. Again, enter the role of technology in Boswell’s practice. Recognizing the many living in Diaspora today that rely on the Internet to maintain familial relationships, Boswell uses selfies to shed light on how handheld technology can allow us to exist in multiple places at once, and belong to something greater than our immediate surroundings. In Sankofa (2018), Boswell puts forth a strong and unapologetic image of her nude form—arm flexed, breasts bare and glance direct, Boswell transcends her hospital room at the speed of light, along fiber optic cables and into the world, reborn.

  Phoebe Boswell,   Sankofa , 2018, Pencil and Pastel on Paper, 40.4 in x 32.5 in (102.6 cm x 82.6 cm)

Phoebe Boswell, Sankofa, 2018, Pencil and Pastel on Paper, 40.4 in x 32.5 in (102.6 cm x 82.6 cm)

Boswell is nothing short of masterful at adapting her craft to respond to the pressing issues of our times. She toggles between different modes of artistic representation—from portraiture to landscape painting, abstraction to representation—to reveal just how fragile the constructs of identity and community actually are. And this is not an exercise she performs in service of her own sense of belonging—she asserts, “the most personal things are usually the most universal.” Taking her own life as a case study, Boswell expands her autobiographical exploration of trauma, grief, and healing into a broader survey of the body and its challenge to find a home outside itself. In this challenging exhibition, self-portraiture becomes a tool of self-care and a much needed reminder to look back at paths travelled, in shedding the weight of the past and stepping more fully into the evolving selves we all seek to inhabit more mindfully.




Ceaphas Stubbs: Phantom Limb

 Ceaphas Stubbs,  …Stripped of Everything…Waiting to be Drained Again… , 2018. Latex inkjet print, 64 × 44 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Ceaphas Stubbs, …Stripped of Everything…Waiting to be
Drained Again…
, 2018. Latex inkjet print, 64 × 44 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Phantom Limb is a solo exhibition of recent works by Ceaphas Stubbs, a New Jersey-based artist who collapses photography, sculpture, and collage into a singular process that yields hyper-layered 2D prints from 3D dioramic still lifes. The exhibition marks the culmination of his six-month residency at the Paul Robeson Galleries at Express Newark, a community collaboratory that encourages innovation, collaboration, and experimentation. These perception-defying photographs both conjure and resist the sex appeal of advanced imaging technology, marrying analog and digital processes to produce imagery that is simultaneously nostalgic and afro-futuristic. Stubbs’s eclectic and erotic ecosystems—which he fashions from repurposed detritus and ephemera such as fabric scraps, adult magazines, and found objects—unleash symptoms of yearning in their viewers that can be likened to those of phantom limb pain. In this otherworldly exhibition, Stubbs navigates the innate tension between desire and pain, and unpacks the phenomenology of loss by giving visual language to the persistent tingling, itching, burning, and aching that accompany want.

His creative process is an experiment in itself, a performance that tests the understood limits of photography, perception, and patience. First, Stubbs sets about scavenging materials, which often hold traces of intimacy yet embody only a fraction of a greater whole—colorful, patterned swatches that belong to a larger garment; scenes clipped from photographs rooted in someone else’s memories; and limbs dismembered from sex acts depicted in pornographic magazines. These are then refigured, suspended, anchored, or overlaid into parallel universes using string and wire affixed to a wooden armature. In a final gesture, Stubbs places this armature against a vibrant and textural backdrop, and photographs the tableau to generate a single image, where only shadows remain as remnants of his trace, and the multi-step process.

These flat yet loaded prints toy with viewers’ perception and orientation by eroding the distinction between background and foreground, gravity and anti-gravity. The longer one spends falling head over heels into these works, the more existential questions arise. How can we comprehend desire for something we never in fact held? Do the social and cultural constructs of trauma engender collective suffering? And if life is pain, and love is desire, then what is death? Are we all fated to live, love, and die as masochists? In this meditative space, the works themselves somehow come to embody an expression of deep loss, as dimensions evaporate in the translation from worldly context to artistic studio, kinetic sculpture to static photograph, and static photograph to the wandering eye. However—as with the scientifically inexplicable sensations associated with phantom limbs—even these voids generate unfathomable dimensions and rearticulated relationships in their wake.

 Ceaphas Stubbs,  …A Touch Here, A Tickle There…The Full Lengths of The Bodies Pressed… , 2018. Latex inkjet print 64 × 44 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Ceaphas Stubbs, …A Touch Here, A Tickle There…The Full Lengths of The Bodies Pressed…, 2018. Latex inkjet print
64 × 44 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Many of Stubbs’s works achieve a delicate alchemy of love and loss, and at times fuse these elements together to summon the heartbreak and rage of unrequited love. In . . .A Touch Here, A Tickle There. . .The Full Lengths of The Bodies Pressed. . . (2018), a hand reaches out, grasping at what appears to be a literal and a metaphorical straw, while nearby backs and necks—arched in ecstasy—never seem to quite connect. In his statement, Stubbs expounds, “First, losing the physical contact of a lover. Eventually most people accept the relationship ending and find ways to move on. That is until we have reason to hope again. The fragmented bodies become the catalyst for hope.”1 Perhaps it is this belief in something beyond the other side of sorrow—be it independence, reconciliation, or acceptance—that allows us to shed the pains that haunt and moor us, and ascend into a vast and limitless future love.

If French is the language of love—and love is central to how we perceive ourselves in the world—then let’s turn to the revolutionary French philosopher and writer Frantz Fanon to comprehend this cosmic romance between hope and reason, the mind and the body. He writes “I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos [. . .] I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia.”2 Here, black magic and black excellence are embodied, and blackness becomes another form of gravity. In works like . . .Stripped of Everything. . .Waiting to be Drained Again. . . (2018), Stubbs suspends a torso amidst a galaxy of stellar debris like a resilient, black star unmoored from the fate of an event horizon and surrounded by a galactic luminescence of its own creation.

Stubbs weaves this push and pull between fantasy and reality through the titling of his works to drive home these underlying tensions: . . .Disappearing Act. . . (2018);. . .His Eyelids Fluttered Down. . .His Heart Floated Away. . . (2018); . . .Easy Come, Easy Go. . . (2018); and . . .To Heal the Troubled Mind. . .The Center Must be Found. . . (2018) to name a few. Stubbs’s poignant use of ellipses subverts the conventions of linear narrative, and instead imagines alternate and orbital endings that leave space for the viewer to transcend their own realities, slip through the trap doors of memory, and revel in the space of infinite possibility that seems only achievable in dreams. In the worlds Stubbs creates, these are wet dreams, where Black intimacy drips from every object and surface. What Stubbs achieves in these strikingly liberated and devastatingly distant worlds is a prototype for living with desire, dismantling the trope of hyper-sexualized black bodies, and inviting unabashed, orgiastic, and radical love to join us down here on earth.


  1. From a conversation with the artist, Friday, July 13, 2018.
  2. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Atlantic, 1994.

Harlem Perspectives: Decolonizing the Gaze & Refiguring the Local

 David Shrobe,  Anointed , 2018. Oil, Graphite, Wood, Metal, Fabric, Paper and Mixed Media, 60 × 47.5 × 4 inches. Courtesy Faction Projects

David Shrobe, Anointed, 2018. Oil, Graphite, Wood, Metal, Fabric, Paper and Mixed Media, 60 × 47.5 × 4 inches. Courtesy Faction Projects

For the last century, Harlem has served as a container for popularized hopes, myths, and projections surrounding Black and Latinx cultural production. For many, Harlem holds the nostalgia of an era long gone, one colored by the writings of Baldwin, the riffs of Ellington, and the swag of Baker. For others, Harlem has come to embody a contemporaneity that is built atop yet distinct from its complex history. With the launch of their second exhibition Harlem Perspectives, FACTION Art Projects—a Bristol-based arts collective who recently opened Gallery 8 in the historic Strivers’ Row district of Harlem—chimed in as a new, local voice invested in reinforcing the perception of Harlem as a hotbed for social innovation and cultural entrepreneurship.

The exhibition brings together ten multidisciplinary artists who live and work above 110th street, positioning them as local talent. Despite sharing the geographical context of Harlem, “Jamaica-born Renee Cox, Colombian-American artist Lina Puerta, French painter Elizabeth Colomba, Dominican Republic-born Pepe Coronado, Chilean American artist Virginia Inés Vergara, Moscow-born Leeza Meksin, Guatemalan photographer Jaime Permuth, African American artist Stan Squirewell, and New York born Elaine Reichek and David Shrobe,”1 challenge viewers to confront their own stance and subjectivity in relation to global issues and identities.

I was first struck by the exhibition’s context—an international group of primarily POC artists grouped by British gallerists seeking to engage “an interesting and eclectic group of people,” in the very birthplace of gentrification in Harlem. For this reason, instead of tracing and deliberating upon the historically fine line between cultural celebration, fetishization, and commercialization, I chose to focus my observations on how these prolific artists decolonize the art historical gaze by interrupting traditional readings and viewing paradigms in their works.

David Shrobe carries the spirit of the exhibition dutifully, as a local artist whose highly-accessible works are constructed in-part from found objects sourced within a few block radius of Gallery 8. In an interview with Black Art In America, Shrobe discusses the rich history of materials, and poetically defines abstraction as a process wherein the artist invites materials to tell their own story.3 In so doing, Shrobe frees our collective imagination from the trappings of social object memory, uplifting the quotidian and inviting viewers with differing levels of art literacy to see themselves and their neighborhood reflected in his works.

Stan Squirewell similarly refigures inherited materials, turning to the relics of ancient civilizations to address lingering existential questions that continue to confound us today—“How did we get here? Why are we here? Where are we going?”4 In his vibrating, mixed-media collages, Squirewell adorns biblical figures—such as Melchizedek, Lilith, and Eve—with fabrics whose patterns hold the symbolic visual systems of our ancestors, reminding us to look to history in imagining a shared future. Lina Puerta also engages memory, abstraction, and the inherent shape of things, allowing, “her artistic process [to be] guided by the physical qualities of [her] materials.”5 This willingness to surrender to the material world—which for Puerta is a robust spectrum of textures and colors, spanning from artificial plants to lace and leather—offers a striking alternative to consumerism, and sheds new insights on how to consider one’s own identity and agency in relation to the things we own.

Renee Cox and Elizabeth Colomba are also concerned with ownership and cultural property, and use photography and painting respectively to test the artworld’s readiness to confront its own privilege and power. Both artists foreground black figures in positions of power within scenes of leisure and decadence, privileges once reserved for upper class whites. In The Signing (2017), Cox stands amidst a sea of fancifully dressed people of color as they bear witness to the signing of a declaration. In Chevalier de St. Georges (2018), Colomba destabilizes the art historical gaze through a complex matrix of unrequited glances—the mirrored reflection of a woman holding an apple looks longingly upon a dapper man, who gazes upon a portrait, whose subject stares straight into the eyes of viewer.

For many in Harlem Perspectives, making art is synonymous with subverting tradition, and I only wish these artistic gestures and political interventions were discussed more thoroughly in relation to the legacy of activism and radical creativity in Harlem. Upon leaving Strivers’ Row, I meandered through a more familiar and visceral experience of our neighborhood, whose tune was louder, grittier, and more expletive than that of the pristine gallery. As someone complicit in the vetting systems that often reinforce the binary constructions of the artworld—art/craft, local/global, emerging/established—I too thirst for the community-driven and site-responsive exhibition model FACTION strives for in this exhibition. And, as a neighbor to both Gallery 8 and these amazing artists, I look forward to working together to shift professional attention and resources towards our neighborhood, and those named and unnamed artists who embrace risk every day by envisioning and actualizing the world we want to inhabit, together.


  2. Gallery co-Founder Richard Scarry as quoted in BAIA Talks: Harlem Perspectives.

Hank Willis Thomas: Black Archival Memory & Its Conceits

Over the past decade, the community of artists of color who retell American history by remixing and repurposing its archives has reached fever pitch. From Derrick Adams’s inventive adaptations of politically-charged designs by black fashion pioneer Patrick Kelly, to Firelei Báez’s reimagining of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party to grant women of color their rightful seat at the table, artists are resurfacing visual languages from the past to comment on contemporary socio-political culture. Notably, these temporal investigations and reclamations also serve to uplift the long lineage of African-American changemakers who are all too often omitted from the archives altogether. 

In this way, archives—which find home in our public institutions, private residences, and online—have come to embody sites of radical imagination. Now more than ever, artists are critically engaging the cultural objects, ideas, tools, and ephemera that have shaped—and take the shape of—our inherited past. Celebrated conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas has long tapped the well of popular media images, illuminating trends in American consumption across socio-cultural spheres, and prompting us to take stock of our investments. In What We Ask Is Simple, Thomas turns to international activism, sourcing iconic protest photographs from “libraries, historical archives, and years of online research,”1 to undergird this impressive new body of work.

 Hank Willis Thomas,  Public Enemy (Black and Gold I) , 2017. Screenprint on retroreflective vinyl mounted on Dibond, 24 × 32 inches. Top: no flash; bottom: flash. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Hank Willis Thomas, Public Enemy (Black and Gold I), 2017. Screenprint on retroreflective vinyl mounted on Dibond, 24 × 32 inches. Top: no flash; bottom: flash. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

It’s difficult to recount the experience of viewing these works without first describing their odd context—dimly lit galleries with wall signage that, in what might be an art historical first, actually encourages flash photography! While light is well understood to erode the surface qualities and archivability of an artwork, Thomas presents a series of polydimensional screenprints on retroflective vinyl whose formal qualities are markedly enhanced by iPhone torches and light beams. If you are a science novice such as myself, retroflective materials are typically used to increase the nighttime conspicuity of something or someone—a poetic metaphor for drawing meaning out of the dark, or illuminating a subject who might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Once aglow, these seemingly abstract images pull into sharp focus, foregrounding historic African-American change agents—such as Shirley Chisolm, Dorothy Counts, and Gloria Richardson—amidst the metallic, painterly brushstrokes. As the viewer moves around and between the works, heightened levels of detail emerge.

Thomas forges an alternative universe in this exhibition, whose rules of engagement center black protagonists, and activate technology as a political device for reframing historical narratives. The more time spent free-falling into the depths and dimensions of works such as I Am an American Also (flash) (2018) the less simple one’s questions become. For example, in We want equal—but...(II) (2018), how is it possible that white figures can emerge from black space, and black figures from white space, all within the same frame? And what does this transposition say about the historical assumptions that have been projected onto the binary construction of race in this country? In this moment of questioning I became hyper-aware of the role technology has played—both then and now—in helping to right, write, and rewrite the history that contextualizes the archive.

As I riffed on the conceptual intersections of archives, activism, and the American dream—and imagined the now-digital archives of protest imagery we create every day—the myth of American progress felt more real than ever. From Facebook Live videos of black men, women, and children slain in broad daylight, to viral tweets of videos depicting police brutality against unarmed civilians, technology has become increasingly important in documenting social injustices and holding oppressors accountable. And it, like archival memory, is fortified by collective use—#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and #itcouldhavebeenme have become tragic yet vital repositories of personal images that help us to collectively remember those we’ve lost. 

In works such as Four Little Girls (blue and white)Pledge, and Power to the People / I'm too Young to Vote (black and gold)—all 2018—I was struck by the hope and heartache I felt as I encountered images of children advocating for an equitable future that has yet to come. I wondered how the brave and resilient young people pictured engage the struggles of America today, and grew angry as I traced the waves of so-called change spawned by the 20th-century movements Thomas so powerfully re-postures. And for a brief moment, the writer and the artist in me joined as one to proclaim that the narratives we construct bear the same cultural weight as the images that capture them. For those like Thomas who dare to engage the complex, conceptual terrain between the fact and fictions of history, archivesin both their analog and digital formsbecome a powerful medium, that empowers artists to author distinct and fresh accounts of what was, what is, and what might become.


    1. Taken from a conversation with the artist on 18 April 2018.

Adrian Piper: From Passing to Purple

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 is not the systematic web of blunt perceptions the exhibition’s title would have you believe. With nearly three-hundred works spanning the entire sixth floor of MoMA—a first for a living artist—the exhibition demands its audience bring with it a willingness to work, both objectively and subjectively, for reason. For me, this was an isolating experience as I struggled to flow with the uncontested praise that’s accompanied this seminal, far-reaching exhibition. While I have always valued the profoundly poetic explorations of self and community found in Piper’s earlier works, I experienced a crisis of conscience as I moved through the final galleries.

My own intuitions felt shamefully in conflict with those rendered visible by the artist whose brave work has opened doors for a liberated woman such as myself to find footing in this world of institutionalized art. The emotional labor it took to weather Piper’s persistent and at times injurious provocations, as in Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013)—alongside the series of moral negotiations I encountered as the exhibition shifted perspective from self to other to othering in its depictions of black bodies—left me in pieces. I had longingly prepared myself for the instigation that has come to define many of Piper’s bold gestures as an artist, however, I was wholly unprepared for the sunken place I found myself in as I stepped out of the exhibition and back into my very black, American life.

What follows is a hypothetical interview with the artist who, to my knowledge, no longer grants them and has expatriated to Berlin: 

Q: An important subtext to your early drawings is the role of the then-legal drug LSD as the genesis of self-portraiture in your practice. During your late ’60s self-exploration in altered perception, the concurrent Black Arts Movement and Civil Rights Movement was awakening a collective black consciousness and imagination. What do these early self-portraits reveal about how you saw yourself at that time? Did your experimentations in liberation from the body—your body—also imagine the liberation of other black bodies?

 Adrian Piper,  Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features , 1981. Pencil on paper, 10 × 8 inches. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

Adrian Piper, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981. Pencil on paper, 10 × 8 inches. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

Q: In the Vanilla Nightmares series (1986), you combat notions of white fragility and privilege by appropriating and repurposing pages from the New York Times as a canvas for your own figural ruminations on race. Nude black figures engulf and penetrate the headlines of American history, challenging their veracity and offering an alternate reality. In your self-portraits—specifically Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features (1981) and Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady (1995)—you name race more directly in your lingual framing of the works. As an artist, do you think it is easier to discuss race through a self-referential lens when language is at play?

Q: The Mythic Being series marks a seismic shift in your practice—performance art seems to untether your gaze from self and open up metaphysical terrain in which to imagine and refigure the other. Your body becomes a powerful medium, and embodied gestures expose and redirect the projections of others onto your identity and form. I imagine you learned a great deal about those you encountered as your alter-ego. What did this process teach you about your physical, spiritual and emotional selves?

Q: As an artist whose unyielding work has often explored the social constructions that put democracy at risk of self-deconstruction, what communities do you consider yourself to be a part of? How and where do these communities—and the theoretical audiences for your work—intersect? In what ways are you present and absent for these interactions? 

Q: Many responded in arms to Dana Schutz’s, Open Casket, depicting slain Emmett Till in the 2016 Whitney Biennial. This uproar marked only a recent chapter in the mounting resistance to the spectacle and consumption of black death in art. It also rearticulated a set of unspoken rules around representation, solidarity, and the materialization of other’s trauma. In your opinion, what do works like Free #2 (1989) and Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013)—which depict a lynching, police brutality, and Trayvon Martin’s face obscured by a crosshair—add to this conversation? And, in the ironic titling of these works, how does your summoning of “liberation” and “imagination” resonate against the lived experiences of these slain black men?

Q: As an expatriate who has selectively disengaged from the very real trappings of race and nationality, how do you see and engage the struggle of black America today? I’ve heard that you no-longer identify as black, and have shed that aspect of your identity for purple. How does the privilege of purple intersect with making work about the black experience?

Q: Upon exiting the galleries, I participated in The Rules of the Game #2, a performance installation in which I signed a certified contract with you, binding me to “always mean what I say,” a promise I am privileged to make. As someone now bound to you, I wonder in what ways you feel and are bound to me, and what form this conversation takes if you don’t show up.

Firmament & Flora Are The New Black

In 1961, icon of Modern Liberalism Robert F. Kennedy predicted a black man could become President of the United States. At the time, these words slapped up against the status quo and challenged inherited ideas that white privilege would forever prevail in oppressing equal rights to representation. Beyond the complex ways America’s visions for an equitable society have evolved and devolved since, no one could predict just how powerful a Black presidency would actually be—let alone the magnitude of the aftershocks it would provoke in its wake.

 Kehinde Wiley,  Barack Obama , 2018. Oil on canvas, 84 1/8 × 57 7/8 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama, 2018. Oil on canvas, 84 1/8 × 57 7/8 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2018 Kehinde Wiley.

This month, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled two commissioned portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. This ceremony, like most involving the Obamas, marked a celebration of historical firsts—in addition to Mr. Obama being the first African American represented in the presidential portrait collection, Sherald and Wiley are the first African American artists commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to render these prestigious portraits. While much can be said about how the Obama era laid the groundwork for this art historical moment, these portraits tell us as much about the leaders depicted, as they do about the American public to whom they were unveiled. Michelle Obama herself recognized the Faustian gift she and Barack had placed in the hands of these two artists. As Sherald recounted, “Michelle was like, ‘I’m really sorry. We’re giving you an opportunity, and handing you to the wolves at the same time.” 1

Both Sherald and Wiley use color as a political and perceptual device to implode the tradition of presidential portraits as monosyllabic representations of power, persona, and poise. In its place, a new paradigm emerges in which contemporary art animates history by depicting its makers in their full magnetism, and contemporary artists assert themselves as empowered co-authors of history. Let’s recall the very mission upon which the National Portrait Gallery was established, only one year after Kennedy’s famous words: “to tell the American story through the individuals who have shaped it.” It is with this founding principle in mind that one can most fully grasp the gravity of this new chapter—not only are African Americans claiming and articulating our rightful place in the story of this country, but we too are inventing the visual language through which the story of American progress is written.

 Amy Sherald,  Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama , 2018. Oil on linen, 72 1/8 × 60 1/8 × 2 3/4. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018. Oil on linen, 72 1/8 × 60 1/8 × 2 3/4. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Kehinde Wiley has made a prolific career of subverting what he terms the “signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic, and the sublime.” Centering African-American subjects from all walks of life—in postures of power and within vibrant, culturally adorned canvases—Wiley uproots popular understandings of subjectivity and objectivity within traditions of portraiture. In this markedly metaphysical work, Wiley situates Obama on a chair enveloped by his ancestral flora, with fronds that both illuminate and obscure his figure. In this interplay between background and foreground, Wiley simultaneously anchors Obama to his Kenyan, Hawaiian and Chicagoan roots, and frees him of the numerous labels and stereotypes placed upon him, an act of equal parts affirmation and liberation. Multiple aspects of Obama’s identity merge in harmony—the fearless, the soft, the quirky, and the stern—dismantling the trope that presidential portraits need to reify hyper-masculinity and dilute the many other facets of identity. Most potent for me is the fact that, in isolation, Barack Obama’s portrait is just as gripping a representation of an individual as it is a remarkably stark contrast to many of the presidential portraits that precede it­.

Amy Sherald puts forth her own distinct approach to portraiture that sheds photorealism and laws of similitude to cast her subjects in a bold new light—one that, in fact, emanates from within. She foregrounds the inner dynamism of her subjects by rendering them at a larger-than-life scale, armed with props that help to tell their story. In the case of Michelle Obama, the prop is the eclectic Milly gown, which, for the artist, is a narrative cue equally important as the expression on Obama’s face. Like all of Sherald’s works, this portrait demands time be spent with it, as details progressively emerge that beg further investigation—the grayscale of Obama’s skin, the patina of her eyes, the purple of her nails, and the many messages folded within the expanse of her dress. With time and thanks to the meditative space forged by the monochromatic, ethereal background, conceptual layers emerge atop the more tactile ones, such as the subtlety of Obama’s strength, and her comfort within her skin. Sherald elects to project an infinite vision of Obama that has yet to take shape in the public’s perception, a controversial choice that has confounded those expecting a “likeness” to popular media portrayals already in circulation. In my conversation with Sherald, she describes her decision to forgo a smiling portrait;

It’s really interesting to me that we still can't see ourselves without seeing race—we have a limited imagination of how we can express ourselves, and who we are. I feel as though [some people] really wanted a glamour shot of Michelle. And—even though she is beautiful and fancy—that's just not who she is! I don't see her as a frivolous personality. From our conversations, I knew that I wanted her to look relaxed, as if we caught her gaze in a contemplative moment. I wanted her grace to shine through, and the great sense of power and energy about her that you can literally feel.”

And it's true—as one of the most photographed women in history—the cameras have only managed to capture the most visible and lovable sides of Obama. However, this portrait evokes more than what meets the eye alone, and is delivered by Sherald with the same compassionate intellect that Obama herself is known for.

These phenomenal portraits of Michelle and Barack strive for, and achieve, a great deal: they insert intersectionality into the practice of institutionalized portrait painting; they uphold the qualities of a masterful work of art by capturing the essence and aura of these remarkable individuals; they revive American cultural traditions to be more reflective and inclusive of all America; and they irrevocably embed “color” within the White House and the white cube. Yet, propelled by this moment in history, they also move beyond the creative act of rendering visible the invisible on an individual level. They speak to a collective dream held by people of color to see ourselves—in all our complexity, power, and particularity—reflected in our institutions. And the pride, emotion, confusion, shock, conversation, fear and hope they evoke in their viewers is nothing short of a slap to the canon of the art historical portrait itself. 


  1. Conversation with the artist, Thursday, February 22nd, 2018. She also said, “I’m not really sure what I was expecting I was just surprised at the vitriol…And everyone who likes the painting feels like they need to let me know where they stand politically before they pay me the compliment—they can't just say, ‘I really like that painting.’”