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

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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.