The Racial Imaginary Institute:
by Nico Wheadon
THE KITCHEN | June 27 – August 3, 2018
Balancing a heavy set of curatorial, editorial, and programmatic ambitions, The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) pioneered a new breed of Biennial this summer that disrupted, disoriented, and dissected the social institutions upholding the monolith of whiteness. On Whiteness was the exhibition arm of the Biennial, a collaboration between The Kitchen—a veteran and vanguard in cross-disciplinary experimentation—and TRII, a budding, interdisciplinary cultural laboratory founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine. As part of a larger matrix of initiatives—including an artist residency, symposium, film series, book club, and listening room at partner sites including 47 Canal, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Drawing Center, Recess, and the Queens Museum to name a few—the exhibition served as a flashpoint, sending the embers of heated debates on art and identity politics back into the air. Despite the near half-century between the respective foundings of these organizations, it is clear that the need to hold space for “an interdisciplinary range of artists, writers, knowledge-producers, and activists,” to join forces in affecting systemic change persists. 1
For many involved in this city-wide initiative—from individuals to collectives to institutions—the entry point into the conversation was through defining whiteness itself, and one’s own relationship to it. TRII grounded their conceptual framework in “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” an essay by feminist writer and independent scholar Sara Ahmed, that explores whiteness as an “ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space, and what they ‘can do.’”2Here, spatialization is acknowledged as a tool of racialization, and the most self-aware works in the exhibition speak to the institutional space they occupy, whilst engaging in a simultaneous process of dismantling unfettered institutional power. The curators ignited this artistic investigation by asking each artist, how does your artistic practice disrupt perceptual or phenomenological habits of whiteness? In other words, how can the language of art disorient the dominant perspective, or at the very least disrupt the socio-cultural behaviors that both consciously and subconsciously center whiteness?
Artist Baseera Khan explored whiteness as an omnipresent microaggression, whose echo looms heavy in the air. In [Feat ] with lowered ceiling (2018), she mounted a motorized sonic sculpture—comprised of wearable chains, speaker materials, and reflective plexi—on the ceiling at the entryway to the main galleries. With its slow oscillation and crescendo, the work achieved a curious combination of riot and respite that simultaneously drowned out and tuned in on “the volume on whiteness,” which the exhibition’s curators assert has “been turned up,” in this moment. In the gallery guide, Khan expounds upon her approach: “I sleep a lot. In sleep, my mind undoes the daily microaggressions I take in: apologizing for my success, making myself small so that my male counterparts, or whiteness, do not slit my tongue. In sleep, I dream of the important work I do when I wake. And in times where softness is not an option, no family support, no institution, no clan, I swing toward madness as a form of resistance.3Within this scene—which curbs the white, male protagonist of the art world—one imagines the work as a blinged-out mobile rotating above the artist’s place of rest—a container for dreams of an alternate reality, where sleep is free from the nightmare of whiteness, and waking up in the artist’s, “femme Muslim America[n] experience” doesn’t demand a readiness to fight.4
Artist, writer and publisher Paul Chan nodded at white supremacy’s bent for self-aggrandizement in his kinetic sculptural installation Madonna with Childs (2016), despite his markedly brief response to the question of how his installation disrupts white behavior: I’m not aware that it does. But I did edit and publish this. “This” refers to Whitewalliing: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts by Aruna D’Souza. The book—like Chan’s work and the TRII Biennial at large—poses some difficult questions for all those implicated in producing, consuming, and historicizing art and culture. “How [do we] approach the question of what art institutions hang on their walls without asking about the responsibilities of institutions—all manner of institutions—to make space for everyone, or at least be honest about whom they are built to serve? 5And, how do artists “participate fully in the art world even as they challenge its terms?6 In D’Souza’s line of questioning, we see how whiteness lives as both a spatial and conceptual bloc around which the other must navigate, and how institutions can reinforce white supremacy by denying their colonial roots and walling off privileged space. In Madonna with Childs, Chan aptly visualized this unchecked and inflated sense of power in the form of three white, Klan-like figures—made of fabric and mounted atop fans—that whipped and flailed unpredictably, consuming the entirety of the side gallery, less a precarious perimeter around which many visitors dared not tread.
Visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola—known for her strikingly intricate and often monochromatic drawings that discuss race, identity and representation through experimentations with surface texture—approached whiteness not as a diametrically opposed position to blackness, but rather as a single point on a broad spectrum of social invention and theatrical deception. For On Whiteness, she presented two white on white charcoal drawings, and engaged the exhibition’s prompt through a spatial metaphor, asserting in the guide: “I call it, ‘An Evening Show at the Amphitheatre’: where the systems in place, and all members and groups presented, are illustrated in the relationship and placement between a center stage play and the seating arrangements bearing witness.” For Odutola, race operates as spectacle and performance, whose historical narrative might rely on predefined roles, but whose ending has yet to be written. In a neighboring sculpture by Titus Kaphar, this same spectrum between center and periphery—actor and witness—was stunningly captured in blown glass, a relatively new medium for the celebrated painter who is known for the unique ways he, “cuts, bends, sculpts and mixes the work of Classic and Renaissance painters, creating formal games and new tales between fiction and quotation. 7A Pillow for Fragile Fictions (2016), Kaphar placed a transparent bust of George Washington—containing traces of molasses, rum, lime and tamarind—atop a marble, pillow-shaped base. At the time of Washington’s presidency, these rations amounted to the cost of a black life or the ingredients for Colonial decadence, however, in their current configuration, they become poetic allegories for white fragility.
A feat in collaboration and participation, On Whiteness brought together an impressive chorus of voices across perspectives, mediums, and areas of expertise. Organized by, “Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, Sara’o Bery, LeRonn P. Brooks, Steven Glavey, Cathy Park Hong, Casey Llewellyn, Claudia Rankine, Simon Wu, and Monica Youn of The Racial Imaginary Institute, and The Kitchen curatorial team,” it embodied an abundance of emotional and professional labor, whilst pointing to the arduous work that lay ahead in dismantling institutional racism and systemic oppression.8 Acknowledging what Ahmed describes as, “orientation devices, which take the shape of ‘what’ resides within them,” the Biennial miraculously challenged institutions’ abilities to both embody and reflect an equitable society, without becoming—through proxy or alignment—an institution in and of itself. This was in part due to the numerous programmatic partners who—in an act of solidarity—signed on to stage authentic interventions at their own institutions.9By expanding the conversation beyond their own curatorial premise, and through deliberately inviting contributors to explore whiteness as central to broader discussions on race and representation—but not the center itself—TRII Biennial encouraged us to look both outwardly and inwardly at the structural biases that surround and impact us all.
- Ahmed, S. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory, vol. 8, no.2, Jan 2007.
- Excerpt from The Racial Imaginary: On Whiteness Gallery Guide
- Aruna D’Souza, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (2018), 5.
- Ibid, 7.
- Ahmed, p. 157.
NICO WHEADON is director of public programs and community engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is also an independent writer, photographer, and cultural producer, and is on faculty at Hartford Art School.