Whitney Museum examines protest with new exhibit



Vietnam War protest posters, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Rohini Chaki.

“Oh, I’m so upset,” native New Yorker Becca Davies said, through tears. She and her 21-year old daughter had just seen a short film at the Whitney Museum, “An Ecstatic Experience,” by Brooklyn-based video artist Ja’tovia Gary, who juxtaposes black-and-white found footage of actor Ruby Dee with gospel singers and recent clips of rioters responding to police brutality against the black community.

“You know, I’m 55,” she said. “I lived through all this. I thought all this was over. The thing that’s really bothering me right now is the race thing. I feel like it’s our Holocaust and we’ve never owned up to it, and it’s time to own up to it”, said Davies.

The film is part of the Whitney’s latest exhibit, “An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940-2017”. The Whitney Museum of American Art moved to its current location in New York City’s Meatpacking District in May, 2015, and has since enjoyed an annual footfall of over a million visitors. “An Incomplete Protest” opened on August 18 and, “aims to reveal how artists have approached protest with methodological, stylistic, and political complexity over the last several decades”, according to a museum spokesperson.

Although the exhibition has been in the works since before the 2016 election, the Whitney has been a frontrunner in the New York art world’s response to the Trump presidency. The day after the election, Boston-based artist Annette Lemieux got the Museum to re-install her piece, “Left, Right, Left, Right” – a photo collage of raised fists mounted on wooden handles to look like protest posters. This time, it was hung upside down, to show a world in disarray and as an act of artistic opposition.

But the Whitney has not been immune to protest, and “An Incomplete Protest” showcases some of the pushback. The museum dedicated a section of the gallery to works by the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist artist collective that has protested the museum’s exclusion of women artists in the past. Most recently, the 2017 Whitney Biennial drew sharp criticism and peaceful protest at the museum for displaying white artist Dana Schutz’s rendition of the open casket funeral of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Mississippi who was brutally murdered in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. The current exhibit makes no mention of this controversy.

“An Incomplete Protest” has galvanized discussion among museumgoers, not all of it favorable. Stephanie Lim, 26, from Oakland, CA, was outraged when a white couple laughed at an installation by Carl Pope, “Some of the Greatest Hits of the New York City Police Department: A Celebration of Meritorious Achievement in Community Service” (1994). The sarcastic piece showcases engraved trophies rewarding police officers for various forms of brutality against black citizens.

“There was a black man with his young daughter, explaining to her something about her grandfather and the police,” said Lim. “[The white couple] looked at the piece and said, ‘Oh I don’t know what this is for, I don’t get it.’ I explained to them that it was tongue-in-cheek, about police brutality. They laughed. To hear someone share their personal experience with their daughter and then to hear somebody who is completely oblivious, it really hit me – some people still don’t get it! I want to scream, cry.”

Davies tried to explain her reaction to her daughter, telling her, “This is so moving for me because it brings to the surface the heartbreaking pain that the terrible slowness of change imposes on the victims of injustice.”

“How devastatingly sad it is that all the promises of progress that were made in my youth are still so elusive or only marginally delivered upon,” she said.

Featured works at “An Incomplete Protest” include Toyo Miyatake’s 1942 photographic archival of Japanese internment in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor; photojournalist Gordon Parks’ coverage of the Black Panther Movement; posters protesting the Vietnam War; abstract paintings from Ad Reinhardt and Mark Bradford; and installations by Melvin Edwards and Senga Nengudi, which use barbed wire to protest mass incarceration of people of color and nylon hosiery to address limiting attitudes about gender respectively.

“Public programs exploring themes in the exhibition are currently being organized and will be announced in mid-September,” according to the museum spokesperson. The museum does not plan outreach around specific exhibits. Instead, its educational arm offers year-long artistic engagements with local schools, community organizations and senior centers.