The Story Behind the Yams’ Whitney Biennial Protest

"Our entire participation was a protest."

Jasmine Murrell, In Order to Rise from its Own Ashes, a Phoenix First Must Burn (2013) at the Yams exhibition at Freecandy. Photo: Ben Davis.

I am on record as supporting the Yams collective’s decision to quit the Whitney Biennial. The art world really clearly has a problem of institutionalized racism: It is shockingly white. When a group of dozens of African-American artists pull out of an important art show, I think it is important to listen, even if—or especially if—that conversation is difficult.

The cause of the Yams exodus, as originally reported, was their objection to a work by Joe Scanlan, a white, male artist who creates artwork in the guise of a fictional black, female artist, Donelle Woolford. Scanlan’s work, presented as a series of paintings titled Dick’s Last Stand by the fictional Woolford, was featured prominently as part of curator Michelle Grabner’s section of the 2014 Biennial. Consequently, much of the commentary flowing from the protest has focused on the question of whether Scanlan’s work is offensive.

Last night, HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? (the group’s full name) launched the first of a two-night show at Freecandy in Brooklyn. If possible, I recommend that people go tonight. It was a warm, supportive environment, featuring a screening of Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, the work featured in the Biennial, as well as a gallery of multimedia art, and a rollicking cabaret (I have been converted into a big Tish Hyman fan).

The occasion of the self-produced show is also an opportunity to get a fuller sense of their account of events surrounding their Whitney departure. On Wednesday, I had a chance to interview several members of the Yams via telephone about their recent experience (the main speakers were Christa Bell, Sienna Shields, and Andre Springer). The result changes the way the story of the Whitney protest is being told.

artnet News has also published the entire transcript of the hour-long interview. I think it can be an important resource for a conversation about racism in visual art, a conversation that is quite clearly past due. However, below I am breaking out the most important issues, to make sure that they don’t get lost.

1) Scanlan didn’t prompt the withdrawal.

Though expressing strong feelings of dislike for Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford piece, the members of the Yams Collective that I spoke to were emphatic that the Woolford piece was not the ultimate cause of their action. That cause is the institutionalized discrimination at work in the Biennial, as evidenced by the low number of artists of color involved. “This is not about Joe Scanlan. We are not protesting Joe Scanlan, or Michelle Grabner. We are protesting institutional white supremacy and how it plays out,” Christa Bell said in our conversation. “A main part of our message is that we want to move the idea of white supremacy away from caricatures of white supremacy: neo-Nazis, KKK members, crazy kids who live in the mountains of Arkansas. White supremacy is embodied in these institutions that tokenize us, that invite us into spaces where they have absolutely no interest in ceding power. That’s the most important thing to get about this.”

2) The “entire participation was a protest.”

The Yams consider their entire participation in the Whitney Biennial as part of an “intervention,” undertaken as a way to specifically raise the issue of the under-representation of artists of color from the inside. They cite as inspiration Stan Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a 1960s narrative (based on Greenlee’s own experience in the Foreign Service) that involves the lead character entering the CIA as a token African-American, then going on to use its techniques in the black revolutionary movement. Although members of HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? had worked together in various forms for years, the collective was only formalized in the lead-up to the Biennial, after curator Michelle Grabner saw a collaborative film project in artist Sienna Shields’s studio, and expressed interest. The discriminatory nature of the Biennial, and how to reckon with it, was always a part of the Yams’ internal discussions about participation. “Every Whitney Biennial I have ever been to, you can barely count the number of black artists in the show on one hand. I didn’t want to be a part of that,” Shields said. “There are so many amazing artists of color that I have known in the past 12 years in New York that are essentially overlooked. But I just felt it was time for an intervention.”

“[O]ur entire participation was a protest,” Bell reiterates. “Just because people don’t know that doesn’t mean it is any less of a protest. Withdrawal was the final act of protest. Black people en masse being inside of an institution like the Whitney, presenting art, is itself a form of protest. We just followed it through to its inevitable conclusion.”

3) The key issue was over the Whitney’s policies.

The decision to withdraw was the culmination of a variety of what the Yams see and experienced as inattention and subtle forms of racism, or micro-aggressions. Particularly galling, for instance, was the contrast between Scanlan getting his fictional African-American artist’s name into the catalogue, and what Yams members describe as their struggle getting the individual names of their members in the same book. The last straw, they say, was not Scanlan’s work specifically, but the Whitney’s response to their attempts to raise the issue of how to change its ways. Here’s Bell:

“The week that we actually withdrew, there was a meeting between representatives of the Yams and the curatorial advisers of the Whitney. And we recorded that meeting so that we could all participate in our own way. [Yams member] Mitch McEwen and Sienna [Shields] were suggesting ideas to the Whitney: How about making your curatorial processes transparent, so that you can get help from the public or from other institutions that are doing a better job of being inclusive and at deconstructing white supremacy on an institutional level? We were coming up with suggestions like this, and it really just felt like the entire agenda of meeting with us was to quiet down the black people. They weren’t sincere, or being proactive in coming up with solutions to their internalized racism as an institution.”

Read the full transcript of artnet News’s interview with the Yams here: “The Yams on the Whitney and White Supremacy.”

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