As Whitney Biennial Draws to a Close, Yams Collective Withdraws in Protest

Screenshot of "Donelle Woolford"'s biography page from Joe Scanlan's website for the fictional artist

The lack of racial diversity in this year’s Whitney Biennial has finally come home to roost, as HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?, or the Yams Collective, for short, has formally withdrawn from the exhibition, reports Hyperallergic. The group is acting in protest of the Biennial’s inclusion of white Princeton professor Joe Scanlan‘s work, presented by a series of female black actresses portraying the role of “Donelle Woolford,” a fictional artist. “We felt that the representation of an established academic white man posing as a privileged African-American woman is problematic, even if he tries to hide it in an avatar’s mystique,” Yams Collective member Maureen Catbagan told Hyperallergic. “It kind of negates our presence there, our collaborative identity as representing the African diaspora.”

Yams Collective  is comprised of musicians, poets, actors, writers, and visual artists, most of whom are black or queer, and promotes racial advocacy in the art world. Scanlan’s “Woolford” piece features a young black woman, pretending to be Woolford, who in turn creates work impersonating comedian Richard Pryor. Scanlan’s website offers a biography of the fictional Woolford, replete with major milestones like “Reads Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man,” and “Helps in a take-over of the president’s office in response to the University’s insufficient response to attacks on students of color at Yale.”

Although the timing of the withdrawal may seem odd, with the Biennial closing May 25, Yams Collective has allegedly been attempting to resolve the issue for some time. Catbagan says her efforts to reach out to curator Michelle Grabner were met with a “non-response.” The failed attempt at mediation with the museum culminated in the collective withdrawing from the Biennial yesterday. Anger about the lack of diversity have haunted the show since the artist list was announced last year (see another Hyperallergic article, this one from Jillian Steinhauer).

According to the Hyperallergic report, the collective’s contribution to the exhibition, a 54-minute film titled “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera,” will be screened next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at “a big event which will show it in a more appropriate way.” What exactly this means is not clear. The HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? website says simply, “SCREENING INFO: Coming Soon / Check back for updates.”

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