Over the past few years, artworks that touch upon painful histories have sparked heated controversies. While the artists behind such works have invariably had a social purpose and sought to tackle the political issues plaguing our present, the works themselves have elicited charges of insensitivity, cultural appropriation, and racism. Many discussions surrounding these works have questioned whether an artist from a dominant racial group has the right to make artworks about a story of core importance to a racial or ethnic group to which they do not belong, or to make use of images, ideas, or characters belonging to the traditions of culturally marginalized groups.
The outrage over such artworks—from South African artist Brett Bailey’s Barbican show “Exhibit B” to Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” at the 2017 Whitney Biennial and Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” at the Walker Art Center—has contributed to a tense climate in the art world.
Worse than being outsiders, protesters claim, white artists belong to a dominant racial group that continues to structurally privilege itself at the expense of people of color. As such, racially charged artwork produced by white artists is suspect at best; at worst, it perpetuates racism and oppression. Whereas artists have the freedom to produce whatever they wish, the institutions that display such works are held to a different standard of responsibility: one that extends beyond the artist, the artwork and the principles of creative freedom to encompass the community and audiences these institutions serve, as well as the ideals of social justice.
While they welcome protest and critique, free speech advocates draw a line at the removal or destruction of artworks. While they may admit that platforms for speech reflect social inequalities, and that words and images help perpetuate social divisions and racist attitudes, their solution to these problems lies in supporting more speech rather than less. In line with this general principle, in recent controversies involving offense and trauma, free speech advocates have called on institutions to host dialogue and conversation. While they recognize the multiple responsibilities of art institutions, they privilege the open exchange of ideas over any specific social program.
The National Coalition Against Censorship’s Arts Advocacy Program invited artists, curators, and writers to think across disagreements and share their thoughts on the current debate over cultural appropriation. We asked the respondents to be as direct and uncensored as possible.
This roundtable is conceived as an ongoing conversation. We will be publishing commissioned responses to the five initial contributions on a rolling basis over the summer. To be advised of future contributions, subscribe to ArtsEverywhere’s bi-weekly newsletter. If you would like to make a substantive and thoughtful contribution to this conversation, please enter it in the comments section at the bottom of this roundtable. We will be publishing selected comments. We reserve the right to edit any published comments for clarity and length.
Jump to Response
Talking About History
There are many factors contributing to the current climate of tribalism and polarization in North American culture today, most of them a result of long-term historical developments, of social and cultural oppression and violence. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment both offer convincing arguments for how and why we are where we are today; both of them base these arguments in history.
One contemporary response to the injustices of the past—with significant consequences in the art world—is the turn towards a politics of identity and the claims to ownership of certain cultural expressions. Both are based on personal experience, with an emphasis on the historical trauma affecting the group to which an individual belongs.
Charges of cultural appropriation leveled at white or straight or male artists (writers, filmmakers, etc.) whose work engages the politics of race or gender stem from, in many cases, legitimate grievance. We have to take the charges seriously because they come in response to a society that is undeniably still racist, sexist, and homophobic. I would argue, however, that, rather than staying only within our own personal and group experience, we all need to engage exactly with the events that have brought us to where we are—we are all a part of the system and it will require a majority of us to change it. And until we deal with the history that has produced such an unequal society, the debate over cultural ownership will continue to divide those of us on the political left, keeping us from joining together in the struggle for a more just world. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela: we must be hard on systems, not people.
The wealthiest nation in history has been created through genocidal means—the violent conquest of the land and resources belonging to Native Americans and the forced labor of enslaved Africans. The work of Native American scholars like Dunbar-Ortiz, Vine Deloria Jr. and Ward Churchill leave little doubt as to the true nature of European settler colonialism in the Americas, while Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, shows how the subjugation of African people has been continuous from slavery to present day mass incarceration. Up to now, this story is rarely told in history class, or in museums, or Hollywood films, or among our monuments and memorials, or anywhere in mainstream culture. In the effort to awaken from this historical amnesia, we can look to other nations who have dealt with their catastrophic pasts for inspiration.
Germans coined a new word after World War II for coming to terms with the past, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung.” There is no equivalent in the English language. The US must begin to develop its own version of this term through action. We must institute a truth and reconciliation process to deal with the history of genocide and slavery as Germany, South Africa, and Rwanda have done. And it must not be limited to apologies and contrition: Material remedies and reparations must come from the process. We must also develop public policy that moves us toward the genuine dismantling of white supremacy and patriarchy.
The newly launched Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, founded by Civil Rights Attorney Bryan Stevenson, may be the beginning for this daunting process, a ray of hope in these dark days. EJI’s The Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice have begun a long-term project of truth and reconciliation through remembering and commemorating every lynching in America in the communities where they happened.
I would urge all of us who strive for justice to join Stevenson’s call for national remembering and reconciliation, to begin a process guided by love and compassion toward the systemic dismantling of white supremacy and patriarchy. It may be relevant today, 50 years after 1968, to cite Martin Luther King’s words from that year: “Like life, the racial understanding is not something that we find but something that we must create. What we find when we enter these mortal plains is existence; but existence is the raw material out of which life must be created. A productive happy life is not something that you find; it is something that you make. And so the ability of Negros and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact. … The answer [is] to be found in persistent trying, perpetual experimentation, persevering togetherness.”
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).
The Feeling: The Freedom to Offend/ The Freedom to Say You Hurt Me/ The Hope You Hear Me
How do you talk to a person?
Interaction with another human requires talking. Ask questions. Who are you? What do you like? Where do you come from? How do you feel?
Don’t just talk about yourself. Look outside yourself. Know another human being.
There is the potential of loving another human. But it first requires that you hear the other tell their story.
I ’ve never existed during any other time than now. Judging by what the past looked like, I think it must be a good time for me to exist. My father’s life was different than mine. He was forced into an Indian boarding school, his mother died young, he grew up to be a drunk. He did terrible things, went to prison, and died. I don’t think many people listened to him, maybe because he was a criminal, maybe because he was a drunk, or maybe because he was an Indian born in the 1930s. Or maybe all of those things have a relationship? I think they likely do, but I’m still doing research. I have many more questions to ask.
I’m an Indigenous woman, I’m well educated, I’m a mother, I have a good job and people listen to me. Even better, I teach teachers, so there are layers of people that listen to me. I’m just one of many Indigenous people that are being heard.
I wonder why we are being heard now. Not just heard, sometimes supported. When Sam Durant erected “Scaffold” there was an outcry. The Indigenous community was pained because it referenced the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota warriors. Eventually, Durant transferred the intellectual property rights of the work to the Dakota Nation. This act gave the impression that Durant sincerely heard and reacted to the voices of the Indigenous community. A community expressed pain and the artist responded, transforming the art into something different.
Durant’s remarks during the College Art Association conference make me question how well he listened to the grievances of the Dakota people: “Grievances keep coming up against white artists who deal with racial issues…I think that social and political problems and issues are being superimposed onto art and debates about art…In other words, art is being asked to perform things maybe it shouldn’t perform, which is actual political and social action.” Although I giggle at these remarks—I wasn’t in attendance at the College Art Association conference this year—isn’t that one of the important things that art does? Doesn’t art reflect our constant cultural shifting? If not prompt dialogue? I think that’s what good art does.
Durant’s comments in the aftermath of the dismantling of “Scaffold” make me feel irritated. Why didn’t Durant ask the Dakota people how they felt before he fabricated the work—before he designed it? Why didn’t the Walker Art Center ask local Native Americans how they felt? It’s not that I feel there is a clear line that forbids white artists from telling someone else’s story. I don’t think this is an issue with clearly defined edges.
As an artist, or as a human, don’t you ask someone how they feel about it before you tell their story? What does their story mean to you? Who benefits? Do you gain something at their expense? Is that ok? Did Durant and the Walker not ask because they didn’t think contemporary Native Americans existed? Did they think enough time had passed for the pain to heal? What did this experience teach them?
I’m not healed. I feel anger when someone doesn’t ask me how I feel about Indian boarding schools, about Indian mascots, about water rights, about the missing parts of my story. I still feel pain when I look at a picture of my dad in an Indian boarding school, his face forever miserable.
The recent controversy over the exhibitions by American art institutions of works by white artists depicting traumatic events in the histories of non-whites, during which people of color have stepped forward to register the offensiveness of these representations to their communities, is part of a larger political landscape that includes Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Decolonize This Place, and other grassroots challenges to entrenched power. As a contemporary Mohawk artist, what surprises me most about the controversy is the fact that as recently as 2017 it came as such a surprise to the artists, curators, and institutions involved. And also that, in some quarters, the challenges were received as threatening calls for censorship, when in fact they were more the opposite—calls for voices against the insidious forms of censorship practiced by white-dominated art institutions on non-white groups. White supremacy, no matter how passively or unwittingly sheltered, is suppression—the silencing of voices and the erasure of presence. Shamefully, the art world is one of its preserves.
Besides being framed as censorship, these challenges have also been framed as an “ownership” issue, as if material property were at stake instead of the dignity and emotions of people systematically maltreated and excluded. In 2018, socially-engaged white artists need to weigh the imagined upsides of incorporating volatile racial subject matter into their work against the demonstrated downsides. Practicing such consideration is a matter of awareness and respect, not of censorship or rights. In 2018, people struggling with the ongoing, damaging effects of colonialism or slavery don’t need white artists to represent them or their histories, and artists of color who address these issues in powerful work are too often bypassed in their favor.
Forty-five years ago, in 1973, Best Actor nominee Marlon Brando boycotted the Academy Awards ceremony in protest of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans and the siege at Wounded Knee. In lieu of accepting the coveted Oscar, he assigned his time on stage to Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather to voice Native American concerns before a television audience of 85 million. Brando’s was a deft gesture of solidarity with Native Americans that simultaneously exposed and disrupted the power dynamics of institutionalized white racism in Hollywood, by substituting Native American presence for absence, visibility for invisibility, and voice for silence. In the dramatic few minutes of its occurrence, to an avid mix of boos and applause, it refocused attention on Wounded Knee during an imposed media blackout.
Compare Brando’s action with Kevin Costner’s in his self-directed, self-produced, and self-acted 1990 film Dances With Wolves, the well-meaning but ultimately self-serving, conceptually flawed vehicle which centered him in the spotlight and netted him the Oscar for Best Picture.
Sadly, neither actor’s gesture made much of a difference in Hollywood, which, like the art world, has remained staunchly monochrome—apart from token exceptions—despite the proven excellence of its players of color and recent protests around their absence from awards nominations. Art institutions are at an important crossroads, and in the words of Navajo-Hopi filmmaker Angelo Baca, I urge them: “Do better than your ancestors.”
The artist is a trout
Gustave Courbet once said that he had friend who would wake up in the night yelling, “I want to judge, I want to judge!”
In 1873, Courbet painted La truite (The Trout). The eponymous trout is hooked, on the line and on the rocks, mouth open, eye fixed, bleeding from the gills. It’s dying, which means it’s alive. The Trout was painted between Courbet’s release from prison, where he spent six months for his participation in the 1871 Commune, and his self-exile to Switzerland, where he died of drink in 1877, one day before the first yearly payment of a 33-year fine was due in Paris. It is a portrait of the artist as subject to the judiciary.
I am interested in the position of the trout. Who owns the trout? And does the ownership of the trout depend on what the trout is? Is the trout an image of the trout, the artist, or the fisherman who catches and is thereby also caught up with the fish? For that matter, should art ever be a matter of ownership?
And is ownership the only path by which we recognize a claim of right? Given that ownership, being as unfixed as right and as perspectival as history, seems too slippery a hook, too long a line. Given that the artist seems to own something in the work and the public owns something else, and the next public another thing altogether.
And do we believe that art is nothing more than some expression of the artist’s personality? Or their most accessible biography? This seems a stupid question, but there is usually something to be said for stating the obvious.
Is the artist a trout? If the artist is a trout only by virtue of being seen as a trout, then what is seen in the work of art is not the work, or even the worker, but its reception. Does reception then lie in the eye of the beholder, and which beholder? Who, in other words, is the trout beholden to?
Almost platonically, does perception become reception?
And is art only art that satisfies its recipients? Here I get into the recipient-judge, and the question of morality versus ethics. I suggest that morality tends more towards the judicial, a Law that has something to do with right, something to do with both truth and enforceability. Whereas ethics is more structural and more personal, something that has little to do with ownership or biography or truth, and a lot to do with the lack of a fixed, or even, cognizable, claim of right. Ethics are contentious, contingent, formal. Morality, contrarily, is choral. Always right now.
If we know that reception of art is not fixed, just as the object is not fixed, just as the image of art is not fixed, then how do we account for our own historical contingencies, our own ethical contentions, our own choral demands?
Do we ask too much and not enough of our images? The too-much is to ask that they say everything to everyone, that the whole truth be told in this. This is a demand for an icon. The too-little is to say that they are a mere illustration, inadequate proof of that which does not need to be proven. This is a demand for a piece of evidence. In both cases, the demand is that art substitute for the thing itself. In both cases, the demand is that art become inert, frozen, a whole—self-evident. But of course, this would make art a historical monument.
But if art has histories, and each work its own biography, then art cannot be a historical monument. For there is nothing so invisible as a monument, except, perhaps, history.
To put it very simply, the question seems to be no longer “what is art?” but “why is art?”
For insofar as art remains visible, it must be partial, ongoing. If it is partial and ongoing, then it is a form of theatre. A staging that includes the performance of itself, at once done to be redone through its many great and small, premediated and accidental, audiences, a continuation of time by other means and in other spaces. The trout does not rot, though it is still red. The image is never a fact, in this sense, or a veridiction, but a gesture. Like the gesture between le poisson and la Passion, between pêcher and pécher.
Because a gesture is a performance, and a performance is a proposition.
Art, therefore, is a question about a fish.
The Bastards: Cultural Appropriation by Default
Does someone with “no relation” in terms of bloodline, gender, class, age, or sexual orientation have the right to speak on behalf of others? Or does one need to observe a purity where the “black cat” speaks only about “black cats” and does not step on the territory of “white cats”? And if one refuses that purity, is assuming a false identity mask (where a black cat speaks on behalf of a white cat) just speculation or is it—worse—trolling? The Internet gives us an interesting view of cultural appropriation because quite often people create false identities or hide who they are, in order to be able to hate freely, without compromising their professional career or public self.
There is a telling phenomenon that is quite well-spread in Eastern Europe and growing in the last few years, with the rise of nationalist and fascist parties and their direct participation in governments. Online xenophobes use xeno-nicknames (“ксено-ников”) such as “Hitler,” “KKK,” “Adolphich,” “Faggot,” “Spik,” “Niga,” etc., names that are associated with the hate of the cultural “other” or the “foreigner.” Their goal is to become the ideal “xeno-morph” by displaying an egregious collection of negative attributes associated with the “other.” This amalgam of negativity generalizes otherness as a solid matter of evil, erasing all cultural and identity differences. This strategy provides the user with the ease and ability to offend everyone. It is a strategy most often used by white males, relatively young, whose “rights” to social dominance have been questioned by those they want to offend.
The unleashed hate of online xenophobes made us think about cultural appropriation as part of a strategic goal to build coalitions and solidarities to fight it. It seems that, in this context, being too careful about nuances in cultural differences has gradually become a luxury. Taking a solitary stance in the name of the purity of cultural identity becomes nonsensical when we face the unity of hate—both in the virtual and real worlds.
Is it even possible for a marginalized group to deal with systemic discrimination alone, without the participation of others? Is it possible to fight inequalities without solidarity?
The “real nationalists and patriots” claim to be universal representatives of a monolithic identity, valid for a whole country and based on blood, not on language or common cultural experience. They are united, although they definitely have their own differences. The big or small differences of the “other” do not matter to this unity of hate and are erased altogether. The nationalist fanatic is the enemy of all diversities—not a personal enemy, not an enemy of one very specific cultural identity, but an enemy of many, who are all brought together under the common denominator of “other.”
As artists, we need to take a strategic look at cultural appropriation. Our unique experiences matter to those who value them. They are important to those who are bound by solidarity, to those who love each other. But arguments with friends reduce the strength of resistance. The creation of unity is, in our opinion, more effective for fighting inequality and hate than focusing on how one’s feelings are hurt by an ally and friend.
Cultural appropriation can be used strategically for political purposes, but may not work with all audiences, which is something we should be aware of. Strategic cultural appropriation may even become counter-productive in the wrong context. When artifacts travel, for instance, they change their context and can be understood very differently, or misunderstood entirely.
One example is the film “Borat,” which works best as a political and social critique of the U.S. and perhaps should be shown to only U.S. audiences. We have watched the film within the U.S., where it gathered a lot of admiration by progressives and prompted loud laughter in theaters. In Bulgaria however, audiences remained completely silent, seriously puzzled by the fact that Bulgarian folk songs were used as “Kazakh,” a Romanian Roma village was presented as a Kazakhstan village, and actors not from Kazakhstan were depicted as such. This cultural mish-mash alienated non-U.S. audiences from the film; its critical bite towards American society was completely lost to them. The film presents an internal U.S. critique using cultural codes that do not convey the same message outside of the U.S. We see this a lot in Hollywood cinema where Russian words are written incorrectly. Here, Bulgarian is used as if spoken by a foreigner.
We don’t believe cultural accuracy will teach foreign audiences what Bulgaria or Russia really are or will make them more tolerant. These inaccuracies are rather funny and we sometimes intentionally watch films like this to laugh. However, cultural appropriation should be used strategically with consideration of the political purpose of the message and the target audience.
In this context, it is also important to talk about people with mixed identities (like us). What is their place? On behalf of whom can they speak? On behalf of which one of their identities? Does a person of mixed race, nationality, or ethnicity only have the right to speak on behalf of one of their racial lines? Are shades of grey only good for soft-core porn?
People with mixed identities may represent such a unique combination that they may not even be able to form a significant lobby to represent them as a group. Perhaps their experience as individuals who do not belong enough to any one group identity is a model we should consider when it comes to uniting diversities.
Speaking from the position of the “mixed,” our problems are intersectional. Systemic discriminations are also intersectional more often than exclusive and specific, so perhaps they should be fought intersectionally.
The vision of a union of diverse, partial, and mixed identities may be a utopian one. We both grew up with an ideology of internationalism, anti-racism, and gender emancipation. For both of us as kids, diverse cultural identities were something to share in the name of world peace and equality, but not uniformity and homogeneity. For instance, wearing elements of somebody else’s ethnic or national costume was understood as a sign of solidarity, respect, and even admiration for someone who is equal to us, rather than being a colonialist appropriation of the exotic culture of people we don’t care about.
The Internet shows us that regardless of any efforts to build tolerance, people want to hate. Hate is based on the exclusiveness of one’s identity. The mixed identity that we both carry offers a “forceful” union of diversities and perhaps offers a model of co-existence, for which cultural appropriation is unavoidable.
The World You Envision
It is not the job of the curator to try to address people’s trauma. At the same time, every curator should be willing to discuss the rationale for what they’ve done with anyone who’s willing to have a respectful conversation about it. And then, at some point, if both parties are so entrenched in their beliefs that they can’t reach any sort of accord, then they should civilly say, well, we don’t agree on this.
I’m not saying tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, to understand everything is to forgive everything. There are some things that don’t belong in a public museum. There are limits. And even so, there are also limits to what should be done if something like that is shown. If we want to spend our energy on bringing more justice to the world, there are more important things than paintings and pictures and photography. There are people who are actually being assaulted and actually being raped and actually being trafficked and actually being killed in the world. But we are talking about art as opposed to really addressing those things.
It’s easy to criticize art. It’s very easy to say to a museum: Something I saw on your wall offended me and my child. Well, then now what? Let’s say they take down everything that offends you? Then what? And this is not a hypothetical question: Then what? No one’s really answered that question for me.
People of color, particularly African Americans, are at a disadvantage going into that world to begin with. So when [people] try to change things through censorship, this is a very counterproductive way to make the necessary changes happen. The fact is, African Americans have been censored out of the art world forEVER. And so we don’t gain much from using that as a weapon for progress. We’re actually sharpening that weapon in a way that can easily be used against us.
My ability as an African American person who also happens to be a curator, to work anywhere in the world, (with some exceptions I’m sure) is a positive. But I am African American and 90% of the people that live in a city may be white, so why should they have a black curator do a show in their city? You would have to ask that question if you’re also saying that a black person being painted by a white artist and that being shown in a predominantly black community is problematic. Well, then it goes both ways.
And to anyone who disagrees with me, I would just say: Please explain to me the world you envision. I want to hear an explanation of the society where no one has to be offended by anything. How does that work? No jokes. No art. No relationships that make you uncomfortable. There are people that are really uncomfortable seeing a white woman with black adopted children disciplining the black children. They don’t want to see that because that triggers trauma because she’s white and they’re black and she shouldn’t be scolding them for doing wrong in the street even though she’s their mother. I’ve seen that. So I’m trying to understand this world that people are trying to build, because I don’t see it. How many offensive lyrics are on the radio every second of every day in every corner of this country? A painting, on the other hand, you go to see it in a gallery or a museum and you leave. This music is everywhere. It’s inescapable. Where are the people going into the restaurant saying: Can you turn that off?! All of it. For good? You have to be very careful when telling people what’s good for them.
Why aren’t people more outspoken with their contrarian views to this whole wave of wanting everything to be politically correct? They are afraid of losing their standing in their community or networks, or something along those lines. Everyone’s got to make a living. I know that people will hold their tongue in many cases rather than risk their jobs. That’s not a genuine way to create culture. I want to come up with ideas and collaborate with artists to develop ideas that are pushing people to think about the world in different, challenging ways. I have no desire to offend anyone. Offending others has no benefit to me. But in the process of challenging the way people see the world and the way people do things, if people are offended in the process, then that’s just a byproduct.
I’m trying to create the world that I want to live in. And I know that to do that, I’m going to come up against a lot of people who don’t agree with my opinions. But I know what that world looks like and I know it’s not easy to get there. I’m not going to, just for the sake of peace, accept living in a world that is shaped by the loudest people in the room. I’m going to fight for the freedom I believe I deserve and I believe other people deserve. In the world I want to live in, there’s an opportunity for people to have their assumptions challenged. The art that makes me happy might make other people uncomfortable. And it’s okay to be upset about some things. And just to be clear: there’s art that offends me, lots of it, for a variety of different reasons. But even the art that offends me has a right to exist in the world.
In my work, multiple histories intersect and collapse in contact with present-day narratives. I try to counter a single perspective (which is usually read, misleadingly, as “universal”) with one that’s complex and messy and thus mirrors our histories in a more honest way.
I have been thinking about monuments and historical sculpture for some time now—about what they represent and what they can become. My recent discovery of the sixteenth century Talking Statues of Rome resonated with my work and made me think of it in a fresh light. These statues were situated in public areas where anonymous messages could be attached to them, turning them into sites for protest, political dissent, critique, and commentary on religious and political authorities. At times, multiple responses posted on adjacent statues created an ongoing dialogue between multiple histories and shifting authors. The statuary became active, mutable, temporal, and contemporary. Works of art were transformed into tools, instruments, guardians—the keepers and protectors of democracy. My public interventions often seek to transform existing monuments in a similar way.
Last fall, I installed a public work in Philadelphia’s historical Vernon Park. In this sculpture, The Battle is Joined, I created my own version of a talking statue where I “initiated” a conversation between two existing monuments in the park—the Pastorius Monument, which honors Daniel Pastorius, a German settler who led the first Quaker protest against slavery in 1688, and the Battle of Germantown Memorial, honoring a George Washington-led revolutionary war battle. The Pastorius Monument was boxed over during World War I and II because the look of the monument was perceived to be “too Germanic.” I thought about the paradox of an immigrant (Pastorius), fighting for blacks’ freedom from slavery, and Washington, who was fighting for the freedom of America from British rule, while owning slaves. I replicated the concealment, but covered the Battle Memorial instead. A mirrored facade was added, reflecting in real-time viewers and the ever-changing landscape.
I didn’t want to just duplicate history. I had to remix it in some way, to find a way to activate the present moment. I thought about what it might mean to rally around an object that reminds us that we are a community, that we’re a neighborhood, that we’re empowered; that in our personal and our civic lives, we have a responsibility. The mirror allowed this, reflecting the neighborhood’s current demographic, which is predominantly African American (it was once a German immigrant stronghold). I also suspected if I mirrored the encasement, the structure would disappear (from varying vantage points), participating in the ongoing conversation and debate around Confederate monuments. As one approached the piece, it transitioned from being invisible to being larger than life. Then, when confronted up close, seeing one’s own reflection, you had to acknowledge your literal presence and the fact that you, in essence, become the monument.
This past spring I created Witness, a site-specific installation at the University of Kentucky. I hoped to deepen the dialogue around a controversial New Deal-era mural depicting a history of Kentucky that many believed sanitized the portrayal of slavery and presented stereotypes and caricatures of people of color.
For this project I decided to reproduce the historical mural’s African American and Native American figures, inserting these images onto the ceiling of the vestibule, which was also gold-leafed—referencing sacred paintings, churches, and cathedrals from the Byzantine and Renaissance periods. This effectively transported these anonymous figures into a heavenly space. I hoped one reading of my use of gold leaf would be to elevate these oppressed figures—those who were deemed lowly—to the divine.
The imagery in the mural depicts the subjugated, performing mundane chores and activities (while neglecting to reveal their depth of servitude or the range of horrific acts that kept them there). I wanted these figures on the ceiling to reinforce the notion or possibility of rebirth—perhaps spiritually, but more importantly through the viewer’s reinvestigation, interrogation, and reckoning with our country’s complex histories. Around the base of the dome is a Frederick Douglass quotation: “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” I wanted this quote to address the anonymous figures in the original mural as well as my relocated ones—calling out by name the historical sin that slavery represents.
The hope is for my work to dissect, critique or reimagine our understanding and relationship to these complicated sites—and therefore with the history they represent. I often think of this quote by James Baldwin and my responsibility as an artist: “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”