Who Has the Power: A Conversation with Aruna D’Souza

May 2, 2018 9:00 am

Aruna D’Souza’s new book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (Badlands Unlimited) presents, in reverse chronology, three events that sparked protest against racism at New York art institutions: the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the white artist Donald Newman’s solo show titled “The Nigger Drawings” at Artists Space in 1979, and “Harlem On My Mind,” an exhibition of all-white artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.

Whitewalling is both a book about protest and about the ways in which art institutions have had to address who they are and which public they are meant to serve. Each of these three moments sparked rage and contention among black artists, writers, and their allies, and Whitewalling meticulously charts both the protests and the ensuing debates about exclusion and censorship. D’Souza reminds her readers that the ideology of white supremacy is not always overt, but often appears masked by arguments for the right to free speech and artistic expression.

Whitewalling builds on D’Souza’s previous writing on intersectional, tactical, and coalitional politics. She was trained as an art historian; her academic writing focused on early twentieth-century French painting and her first book was on the erotics of Cezanne’s bathers. Over the past several years, D’Souza told me, she has shifted her practice to more active sites of conversation, like blogs and magazines, where she writes about culture, food, art, and politics. D’Souza is as thoughtful of a conversationalist as she is a writer. I spoke to her over Skype ahead of the launch on Whitewalling at the Brooklyn Museum on May 3.


SHIV KOTECHA  How did Whitewalling come about?

ARUNA D’SOUZA  The conception of the book was a kind of meeting of minds between me and Paul Chan. Last April, I saw his show “Rhi Anima” at Greene Naftali on a day when he happened to be talking to public high school students about the themes of the work, specifically about how it engaged murders of black youth by police. I had never met him before, and I just watched from afar; I was impressed by how he talked to these young kids. Then, in July, Paul asked me to come to the Badlands office for a chat. Over the course of the conversation he realized that I had been in the weeds in a lot of the Facebook debates around the Dana Schutz painting. The book was conceived at that meeting, and we signed the contract a week later. I started researching over the summer, began writing in October or so, and delivered the first draft of the manuscript in December. The speed of writing was very new to me, and uncomfortable at times, but I think there was a usefulness in being timely about it.

KOTECHA  And it’s set up in reverse order…

D’SOUZA  It was very much a gut instinct that the chapters, or “acts,”  should go back in time. I thought it was good to start with people’s most urgent interest, and that the reverse order would give the book a hopeful trajectory. It moves in a very utopian direction: from an institution being challenged about a single painting to a narrative about the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition asking the Met to become an activist institution by dispersing its collection, embracing a radical transparency about its curatorial decisions, and taking an active part in the fight against racism.

The Black Emergency Coalition’s demands of the museum were kind of extraordinary. The group was started in 1969 by African-American artists Benny Andrews and Clifford R. Joseph in response to curatorial decisions at the Met and at the Whitney. They were influenced by the Black Panthers and other black nationalist thinking and strategy. They were very savvy about leveraging media attention. They were motivated by a very pragmatic concern—wanting to be a part of these institutions—but at the same time they wanted to change these institutions in radical ways. The sequence of the chapters recovers that legacy of black protest, and sets it up as a jumping-off point for whatever happens next. It’s a call to action, or at least reminder of what activism around museums could aim to achieve.

KOTECHA  Your book thinks about protest in a very expansive way. Not only in public spaces as picketing, or in the circulation of leaflets, but also as conversation, whether that be by way of Facebook debates, Twitter feuds, and open letters. Can you speak to social media as a site of protest?

D’SOUZA  To put it in the most anodyne way, the space of social media brings up both possibilities and dangers. It’s dangerous because everything can get subsumed into one battle cry: because Hannah Black’s letter included an “urgent recommendation” to the Biennial’s curators that the painting be destroyed, a lot of those unsympathetic to the protesters ended up believing  “Everyone who protests wants to burn all paintings.”  All nuance got subsumed into that one battle cry. But social media spaces also open up opportunities. Black’s letter was not the first articulation of protest. It came after a lot of thoughtful and really fraught discussion on social media, among mostly younger black artists, critics, curators, and writers who were responding to their initial knowledge of what this painting was and how it came to be in the show, and discussing what the proper responses to it should be.

KOTECHA  Donald Newman’s 1979 exhibition at Artists Space was particularly difficult to read about. It’s hard to believe that an independently run alternative venue would host this show: a rather formalist set of triptychs made by a twenty-three year old white man, who used his material, charcoal, as a euphemism for blackness. It’s even harder to believe that critics I have so much respect for, namely Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens, defended the work.

D’SOUZA  I think Crimp and Owens saw themselves as not working in favor of the institution because they did not see Artists Space as part of the establishment. They saw it as a place that defended culture against the power of art institutions, including the art market. But in this case, I would argue that they forgot who actually held the power. It’s not unusual for that to happen. I remember writing on Facebook last year, “God help me if I forget who has the power and who doesn’t.” That’s what was happening in the Schutz debates. Established people with massive amounts of power imagined that these primarily twentysomething black artists had the power to censor.

That’s also what happened in the late ’70s. Crimp and Owens both later stepped back from their hardline positions against identity politics, especially when they got involved in AIDS activism. In his 1983 essay “The Discourse of Others: Feminism and Postmodernism,” Owens admitted to “gross critical negligence” in failing to acknowledge the role of sexual difference in his postmodern analysis, but he never wrote about having regrets in relation to race, as far as I know. It’s one of the very tragic points in the book for me. I know a lot of the people I discuss in the first two chapters: they are friends, acquaintances, and former teachers. It became very hard for me to forget that context and really see what was happening. That’s why I decided to rely entirely on the archival record for the second chapter. It seemed important to just quote peoples’ words and not report revisionist recollections.

KOTECHA  What do you think it means to be an ally in the struggle against anti-black racism?

D’SOUZA  I am a South Asian who has written a book about black protest. I spent a lot of time thinking about what that means. At one level, this book is about good allies, bad allies, or not-at-all allies—but for me, the process of writing the book itself was an exercise in being an ally, and what that looks like in practice. The responses to the book will be the measure of my success. And if I got it wrong, I am sure people won’t hesitate to tell me.

KOTECHA  How do you, as a writer of color, experience systemic racism in your own work?

D’SOUZA  There’s no doubt that almost any person of color working in the art world encounters microaggressions, overt racism, or exclusion on a daily basis. There are now people of color in the art world who are in charge of the decision-making mechanisms, who can distribute power and grant resources—and even despite that, institutions are getting into trouble, often rightly so. No matter how much effort toward diversity is made at art institutions, the structures that protect whiteness remain more or less intact. The 2017 Whitney Biennial, for instance, was the first curated by a team completely composed of people of color, and was the most diverse biennial the Whitney has ever had! But it was also the most controversial, if you measure that by how deeply the conversation penetrated pop culture. I mean, Whoopi Goldberg was talking about it on The View.

KOTECHA  How would you say that museums should respond to these issues?

D’SOUZA  I think that museums need to be more transparent in addressing their mistakes. Simply vowing to do better without explicitly taking responsibility for what happened in the past is not going to satisfy a public who expect more of their institutions.

In an ideal world, art institutions would make space for actual conversation. In each of the cases in the book, the institutions themselves rarely enter the conversations in ways that are satisfying and meaningful for the protestors. Can you imagine if the Whitney genuinely thought about the history of race protest against itself? I want to know what that would look like. And I don’t mean mounting an exhibition on the history of art-world protests, or even holding a panel about the Schutz controversy—both of which the museum did in the past year. I mean addressing the question of race and institutions in a way that lays bare the practices of decision-making, resource allocation, and hiring—something that looks less like museum programming and more like a truth and reconciliation commission. Even if the Whitney protests were triggered by a single painting, the stakes of the protest were much greater, and spoke to a whole set of institutional and societal issues that are urgent and complex. Until museums figure out how to process their mistakes as part of an ongoing practice, I think these protests will continue to erupt. And thank goodness for that—it’s how real change will happen.