Justice is a verb. It is a constant and relentless action, not something that can be distilled down into a collection of objects. The physical representations of justice need people. They need movement. Otherwise, they simply serve as fragments. Unlike static art objects, materials of resistance—protest signs, t-shirts, pamphlets, white papers, posters, books, songs, poems, chants—operate at their highest frequency when people put their hands, voices, and bodies behind them.
I was reminded of this during one of Aram Han Sifuentes’ Protest Banner Lending Library Workshops at the Alphawood Gallery in Chicago last fall. It was happening as part of Then They Came For Me, an exhibition that tells the stories of thousands of Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from and imprisoned in the United States during World War II. While I ironed on the letters of the sign I was making, I looked back at Heather Smith, an activist and colleague of mine at the Field Foundation, who was holding up a sign that read “Home Not Hate” in bright yellow letters. I had watched her create the sign for over an hour, but it wasn’t until she pulled it up and placed it against the backdrop of her body and the exhibition that it became charged with meaning. She is what it took to make the sign whole. I believe to my core that this is how the physical materials of justice are meant to operate—in the presence and in the hands of people. And occasionally those people move within and through exhibition spaces.
When considering how justice is intentionally manifested within exhibition spaces, I’m conflicted. As I attempt to make sense of it, the logic collapses. Museums and galleries are historically exclusive and elite spaces whose existence is based on the gathering, presenting, and collecting of objects that, inevitably, offer a skewed perspective of the world. As a result of centuries of failing to recognize the intellectual and cultural contributions of so many people, museums have forced everyone who doesn’t prioritize that Western perspective to operate outside of those walls or establish their own museums. They are required to be more resourceful and disruptive of the status quo. They unmake the museum or dismiss that way of operating altogether.
How, then, do we grapple with the recent and necessary shift of museum spaces as ones reserved for the privileged few, to ones that attempt to welcome everyone and anyone with a curious itch? And how do they mindfully offer a reflection of histories and experiences that are missing from their walls and collections—the histories, concerns, and contributions of those they have historically paid little to no attention to or have held in a position of inferiority?
As museum spaces attempt to reach more black, brown, queer, and youth populations, they must contend with the challenge that museum workers and curators themselves are not always the experts. They must seek out knowledge and learn to be mindful of the nuances that come with displaying struggle and the hardships of people who don’t look like them, and find strategies for shaking off the problematic, Western, white lens through which these histories are often framed. They must ask themselves, “who is this for?” and be willing to confront the honest answer. They must examine whether or not they are willing to disrupt how they operate. And they must start with a sweeping internal overhaul rather than easier, external, outward-facing optics—like exhibition-making.
On the flip side, I also have questions for the justice workers, cultural workers, and artists—myself included—who decide to place themselves and their work in conventional exhibition spaces. Are we seeking the acceptance of the museum and/or the opportunity, resources, and clout that come with placing our work within their contexts? What is lost or gained in that process and how is power negotiated, shared, or demanded by the people who are asked to come in and help them remain relevant? What factors help us to determine which places hold us well and acknowledge our value and worth, and which ones are actually vampiric and should be avoided at all costs? And do we understand exactly what’s at stake when we make moves toward these spaces?
Creating a significant cultural shift in art exhibition and institutional practices, as in justice work, requires endurance. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a lifelong effort and an ongoing conversation. There’s no perfect answer. In fact, the answer might be that it all needs to be completely dismantled—physically and conceptually.
While I stepped into this field because I trust and believe in art’s potential to be a tool for justice and I believe in artists’ ability to be articulators of struggle, restoration, and survival, complementing the work of freedom fighters, the people, and movements, I also recognize and constantly interrogate the limitations of traditional art spaces and their inability to hold and do right by the power, self-definition, and burn-it-all-down radical spirit of the people they’ve largely excluded.
I felt a much stronger reverberation from the Conduct Your Blooming banners by Cauleen Smith as they moved alongside me through the streets of Chicago’s South Side than I did when some of her banners were hanging from the ceiling at the Whitney Museum during the 2017 Biennial. The impact of the graphic work of Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, is more palpable in the hands of the people through newspapers and pamphlets than it is under the low lights of a college or university lecture hall. Even so, I see the need for both—having the conversation in museum interiors as well as more accessible and autonomous exteriors—on the streets, at the kitchen tables, in community centers, and on the pages of free, highly circulated, and accessible publications.
Don’t let my skepticism leave you believing that some strides haven’t been made. The world of exhibitions isn’t devoid of promising examples of how efforts toward liberation and justice work can thoughtfully occupy traditional art spaces, even if the examples are somewhat fundamentally flawed. The trying doesn’t go unnoticed. Here are some examples, approaches, and considerations that I’ve taken a mental note of over the years.
Powerful shows can happen when justice workers and artist-activists lead the way.
During the panel, “Speech & Museums,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Lorelei Stewart, the Director of Gallery 400 gave insights into the conversations and questions that led to the development of the 2016 exhibition our duty to fight. She explained that instead of the gallery attempting to take an outsider’s view and curate an exhibition about current movements and activism in Chicago, why not hand over curatorial control to the the activists themselves–the ones actually on the ground doing that work. With that simple question, they reached out to the organizers of Black Lives Matter Chicago (BLMChi) and offered up the exhibition space to them to dream up how they and other organizers would like to be represented within that space.
From that simple question, the entire conversation was reframed and the exhibition made stronger. BLMChi was able to extend this opportunity to other allied movement organizations within Chicago and use this as an opportunity to “[hold] space for survivors and families bereft of justice and healing under anti-Black state violence and [offer] a living testament to the specific and shared struggles that have been at the core of radical, visionary world-making in Chicago organizing.” The organizers also extended an invitation to artists to create new work in collaboration with the people and families embedded within these movements and honor the many lives lost over the years.
Although it was self-initiated, the approach was similar with Do Not Resist?: 100 Years of Chicago Police Violence, a multi-venue exhibition organized in early 2018 by members of For The People Artists Collective, many of which are activists themselves. The exhibition touched on everything from the disgusting legacy of torture that took place under Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge to provoking public curiosity of restorative justice through interventions on Chicago’s L trains, and a series of video interviews with the families of people lost to police violence installed in what looks like someone’s living room.
Then, there is Justseeds, a collective of over two dozen printmakers scattered across U.S., Canada, and Mexico, whose work often operates on the front lines of collective action. While they’ve collectively curated and presented a long list of exhibitions and projects across the globe, they also produce collective portfolios of their print work and contribute imagery and graphics to grassroots struggles for justice while working collaboratively through and beyond their co-op to build large sculptural installations in galleries and wheatpaste on the streets.
And I can’t address the ways in which artists lead the way without also mentioning AfriCOBRA, a Chicago-based collective of artists coming up during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They provided an aesthetic approach to and extended the philosophies of the Black Power Movement through art-making. It was founded by Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams, and continues to be championed by a continuously growing group of Black Chicago artists over the years, many of which are still active to this day. They produced their earliest collective solo exhibitions at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago and the Studio Museum in Harlem. More recently they’ve been celebrated in group exhibitions such as The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.
Museums are sometimes able to access different resources to present the material and visual culture of justice and connect with publics different from those of justice workers, which provides one of many entry points into historical contexts and frameworks.
A history is only as complete as its open and accessible documentation and archives, which means that exhibitions are never quite the full story. Though they sometimes provide a good start and can offer a taste of the issues at hand for a wider audience.
This is the case with the three exhibitions mentioned above and countless others making similar attempts to offer a historical overview. This has also happened over the years with several of the exhibitions supported by the Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award, such as Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960-2000 (2006), which is described as a comprehensive survey of performances and actions created and initiated by Latinx artists from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, across the United States, and in Central and South America. This past year the Exhibition Award also supported the Museum of Capitalism, a brand new institution dedicated to telling the history of capitalism through a variety of ways.
We should be cautious, however, of expecting museums and even these innovative exhibitions to be comprehensive, complete, and perfectly inclusive. More times than not, they should be understood as one take of the story, full of vastly different truths. I’m always suspicious of any exhibition, text, or project that declares itself the definitive take on anything.
Artists and curators are ready to complicate conversations.
If someone asked me to define what an artist does, I would likely include the word “agitator” somewhere in that definition. That may not always be the case, but considering how culture evolves, one could argue that any aesthetic movement is in some way disturbing the ideas and philosophies that came before it. There are plenty of other examples to discover of artists metaphorically flipping tables or having tables flipped on them. If you want some of that, slip on over to your Google search box and type in Adrian Piper + Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Emmett Till + Dana Schutz, Kia Labeija + Your White Walls Can Kiss My Black Ass, Guerrilla Girls, Philando Castile + Henry Taylor, Walker Art Center + Sam Durant—the list goes on.
Curators become agitators, too, by sometimes making what the public perceives as missteps in their curatorial choices or taking a revisionist approach to mainstream canons with their exhibitions or explicitly complicating ideologies, histories, and language. The latter is the case with Black Is, Black Ain’t, the 2008 exhibition that draws its name from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Considering the restive evolution, embrace, and repudiation of the word “black” over the decades, this exhibition dug into the “shift in the rhetoric of race from an earlier emphasis on inclusion to a present moment where racial identity is being simultaneously rejected and retained.” It’s a conversation that isn’t ending anytime soon, only expanding.
Demand that the museums do some soul-searching and change themselves internally.
Change the staff. Change the collection. Change the curatorial and programmatic scope and process. Take a cue from others doing this work. Although I cringe at the word diversity, you can look to funders like Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who recently appointed poet Elizabeth Alexander as their president, for an example of efforts to change the jarring statistics around the demographics of museum staff. When it comes to more thoughtful and inclusive collection-building, the Leadership Advisory Committee at Art Institute of Chicago and the Smart Museum of Art are examples of concerted efforts to more thoughtfully recognize, evaluate, and address what is and isn’t taking up space in the climate-controlled bellies of museums and being preserved as future evidence that we were here.
This discussion has no end, but I’ll stop here with the hope that you’re clicking away from here knowing a little more about why the ways justice is put on display is important and the many roles that objects and people have to play within that discussion. And hopefully you understand why continuing to ask the hard questions is absolutely critical.
So, I will leave you with these final questions: What kind of stance are museums willing to take when it comes to the justice issues they seek to uplift within their halls and galleries? How dirty are they willing to get their hands (as dirty as the soles on the shoes of the people who take to the streets)? At what point is exhibition-making not enough? Could portions of the resources and hundreds of thousands of dollars that go into producing these large-scale exhibitions they seek to capitalize off of be used to fuel work outside of the museum that is the source of those exhibitions’ contents? Whether looking to yesterday or decades past, most if not all of these struggles have not ended, liberation has not been achieved, the concerns and work has only evolved, and in some cases is just beginning. So I ask, what role will the museum play knowing that this kind of work is lastly about the object, but always about the needs of the people?
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