Racially Themed Work Stirs Conflict at Whitney Biennial
By FELICIA R. LEE MAY 16, 2014
The YAMS, a collective of artists who made a video on race and black identity for the current Whitney Biennial, have withdrawn the work to protest a project in the show that they contend is racially insensitive.
The project is by Joe Scanlan, a white New York-based artist who creates sculptures, paintings and books that feature a fictional persona who is black. Mr. Scanlan, who is on leave this spring from his post as director of the visual arts program in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, has for years showcased the life and art of “Donelle Woolford,” a black female Yale graduate and artist, even hiring black female collaborators to portray her.
“Its de facto endorsement by the Whitney Museum is both insulting and troubling,” the YAMS said of the Donelle Woodford material in a letter to the Whitney. The collective said it objected to “the notion of a black artist being ‘willed into existence’ by a white male artist,” and that in the context of an art exhibition, the work presented “a troubling model of the black body” and amounted to “conceptual rape.”
The YAMS collective, which is made up of musicians, poets, actors, writers and visual artists from around the world and describes itself as mostly black and queer, is participating in the Biennial under the name HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? and allowed its video “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera“ to be screened in March. But in the letter, it asked the museum to cancel final screenings of the video at the show, which ends on May 25.
Mr. Scanlan said he had not encountered much opposition to the Donelle Woolford theme until it was selected for the 2014 Biennial, in which it is represented by two paintings and “Dick’s Last Stand,” a series of performances around the country. In the show, Donelle, played by the artist Jennifer Kidwell, appears in drag to re-enact a subversive stand-up routine recorded in 1977 by Richard Pryor for the last episode of his TV comedy show.
This may seem confusing, but it has a simple moral: whatever the complaint, the White Man is to blame.
As a tonic after all the World War Xs, here's the real Richard Pryor: