10 August, 2018 – The Guardian
“Two years in the making, a new exhibition about white culture is delivering devastating insights into power and prejudice in modern America. Poet and curator Claudia Rankine relives its creation.
Two years ago I founded The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII). We were initially a small group of three or four who expanded into a group of 10 curators, of all races, genders and sexual orientations. We met on Sundays, in person or by conference call, to talk about how to think about white supremacy. Our discussions happened as unarmed black people across the US were being killed, “alt-right” groups marched with tiki torches on Charlottesville, ending with three deaths, and the president – whose run-up to office emboldened and amplified hate against immigrants, Muslims, women, gay people and other minorities – continued to make policy out of racist rhetoric.
Black Americans were targeted by the police and white Americans were reporting people to the police because they were black. We decided to use the theorist Sara Ahmed’s “A Phenomenology of Whiteness” as an organising thesis. She argues that institutions are not “simply given” but rather that they “become given” as they repeat decisions over time in service of “the reproduction of whiteness”. Two years of collective labour culminated in TRII’s first biennial exhibition, On Whiteness, which took place in New York this month.
There was much to be learned in the process. It quickly became clear that we could not approach whiteness only through the violated bodies of minorities. The idea that white people are invested in whiteness and its continuance was not to be taken for granted; that white people were invested in humanity, without understanding their definition of humanity to be white. Many appeared to have rarely referred to themselves as white or thought critically about their identity. To use the word “whiteness” was taken by some as an aggressive act and seen by others as novel.
“The primary challenge we struggled with was how to expose and criticise whiteness without further enshrining it as an artistic and cultural ideal,” explains poet and TRII member Monica Youn. “How do you prevent an artwork that focuses on whiteness from being considered just another beautiful white object? And how do you prevent this from being just another conversation that centres on whiteness and white experience while relegating others to the margins?”
Perhaps out of this anxiety, as we approached organisations about scheduling events, the idea of focusing on anti-black violence came to mind first, rather than all the ways whiteness insists on its supremacy and is its own identity politics. The Kitchen, a performance space in Manhattan, was the first major institution to commit to the project. We worked with them to curate a gallery show, performance residencies and a symposium on whiteness over this summer.
Those entering the Kitchen were greeted by Paul Chan’s family of Klan-like figures, constructed from white nylon, battling the winds generated by built-in fans. Mel Chin’s sculpture Aileen, with a pistol in the place of her pupil, stood in front of the main gallery, where works including Ken Gonzalez-Day’s The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park) and Sandeep Mukherjee’s sculpture of the bark of trees explored the history of lynching without employing black bodies…”