Tenth Anniversary

Best of 2013 – #Hashtags: The Ethnicity Exhibition

Happy holidays! We’re wrapping up the year—and celebrating our tenth anniversary—by taking a look back at the best writing from the last decade. Todays selection comes from operations manager Addy Rabinovich: “Anuradha Vikram carefully considers the potential problems of curating according to identity politics. Citing Adrian Pipers controversial withdrawal from Radical Presence, Vikram questions whether the format of the ‘ethnicity exhibition’ truly serves those whose work is being shown, whether it limits the artist to their biographies, or if ‘racially marked shows are marked as such for the benefit of white audiences and institutional power players.’ #importantquestions.” This article was originally published on December 2, 2013.

Lorraine O’Grady. Untitled (Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum), 1980–83, printed 2009. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York.

Lorraine O’Grady. Untitled (Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum), 1980–83, printed 2009. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York. Included in Radical Presence at Grey Art Gallery.

#race #ethnicity #gender #institutions #access #identity

Since the Civil Rights Era, it has become commonplace for marginalized ethnic communities to instate their own institutions of sociological and cultural study such as university Ethic Studies departments and museums like Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts. In the face of extreme prejudice and exclusion from the discourses of history and art, many have felt the necessity and urgency of race-focused research. Nonetheless, in a global art market such as we have today, the existence of numerous star artists of color has prompted some to ask whether the race-based exhibition has run its course as a format for relevant artistic exchange. Recently, Adrian Piper’s request to withdraw her work from the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery stirred up debate around ethnocentric exhibitions once more.

Piper’s request that documentation of her work The Mythic Being (1973) be pulled from the exhibition was executed with high drama, coming after the show had opened and the work was already on view. The timing of her withdrawal is inexplicable considering the work had been included in the full run of Radical Presence at its originating institution, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Her request read, in part: “Perhaps a more effective way to ‘celebrate [me], [my] work and [my] contributions to not only the art world at large, but also a generation of black artists working in performance,’ might be to curate multi-ethnic exhibitions that give American audiences the rare opportunity to measure directly the groundbreaking achievements of African American artists against those of their peers in ‘the art world at large.’”[1] For her part, curator Valerie Cassel Oliver has said that Radical Presence intends to “resist reductive conclusions about blackness”[2] and to present a version of performance in black history that transcends traditional categories of music, dance, and storytelling. Seeking to define African American art practice as more than theater or folk art, Cassel Oliver has opted to locate recent art by black artists within a conceptual framework.

Leaving aside the question of why Piper chose this late date to register her objections[3], is there merit to her claim that African American artists would be better served by inclusion in “multi-ethnic exhibitions”? For an artist of her stature, there is far more cachet in appearing in Documenta or Performa than in an exhibition devoted to African American art history. However, for the younger and less acknowledged artists in Radical Presence, a show of this kind offers an opportunity for their work to be seen in the company of artists who have successfully crossed over to the mainstream, and so to be introduced to audiences that otherwise don’t seek out black artists. By withdrawing, Piper is essentially pulling up her coat tails and leaving the next generation of black performance artists to fight the same battles for recognition anew, without the benefit of her hard-won prominence to direct attention their way.

The question remains, how is it that so many artists are still so marginalized by race, ethnicity, and even gender when many celebrity artists are women and people of color? When Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith are given solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum or the Museum of Modern Art, why is it still necessary to have exhibitions such as the recent Les Papesses in Avignon or institutions like the National Museum of Women in the Arts? To give another example, when Subodh Gupta shows with Hauser & Wirth and Anish Kapoor creates a public sculpture for London costing over 30 million US dollars, why does nearly every presentation of an Indian artist in the United States appear in the context of a “contemporary art from India” exhibition? Do these groupings of artists by demographics rather than technique, subject matter, or formal concerns inadvertently limit the artists’ narratives to their biographies rather than their artistic accomplishments?

Anish Kapoor with engineer Cecil Balmond, Group Arup. ArcelorMittal Orbit, 2012. Steel. 376 feet tall. Olympic Park, London, UK.

Rather than answer these questions—because there is no single answer—let us instead consider why the art world continues to rely on these categories rather than simply represent a diverse spectrum of artists in the majority of exhibitions of any type. Certainly there is a marketing imperative, as shows of women, African Americans, Latinos, or artists from China and India draw audiences whose interest is in regional and social issues as well as those who support the arts. This is cause for concern only because it would seem that ethnicity and gender-specific exhibitions have not yet had a significant effect on the exhibiting or collecting practices of mainstream art institutions in the US. If 30 years of gains made by artists of color are not reflected in the constitution of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, does it stand to reason that the ethnicity exhibition is a space that is separate but not equal?

It also bears questioning whether the audience for these exhibitions is comprised of people who identify with the demographic or nationalist categories on view, or whether these shows are configured to introduce the typical white, upper-income art viewer to a broader scope of art. In either case, it is possible that the category in which the artist is placed is of more concern to the institution than the artwork itself. Artists from marginalized communities struggle to have their work taken on its own merits, free of essentializing rhetoric about the kind of art that people like themselves are expected to make. White, male artists, after all, are rarely if ever described as making white, male art, nor are they consigned to White Male shows (although the majority of shows remain just this). As such, exhibitions based around ethnicity reinforce the notion that whiteness is an absence of race, rather than a racial category itself. This supports the conclusion that racially-marked shows are marked as such for the benefit of white audiences and institutional power players.

J. G. Ballard. The Atrocity Exhibition, 1990 revised and illustrated edition published by RE/Search, San Francisco.

As Sara Ahmed says, “of course whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it. For those who don’t, it is hard not to see whiteness; it even seems everywhere. Seeing whiteness is about living its effects, as effects that allow white bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape, spaces in which black bodies stand out, stand apart, unless they pass, which means passing through space by passing as white.”[4] If the imperative to define ethnic histories is mandated by ongoing white supremacy in the historical and cultural mainstream, then the ethnicity exhibition operates similarly to the “Atrocity Exhibition” described by J. G. Ballard. Excluded from society and from their own artistic discourse, the asylum-bound artists whose work Ballard describes experience their prophetic visions reduced to amusements for the chattering classes. The artists remain marginalized and dehumanized to the extreme while their creative output is lauded for its raw, unconscious power. Such a condition is opposite to the intention of a curator such as Valerie Cassel Oliver, who seeks to amend the historical record to recognize the myriad contributions of black artists to the history of performance art. Even so, Piper’s response speaks to an unfortunate and ongoing reality of widespread historical marginalization on the basis of race.

Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art was on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery through December 7, 2013, and at the Studio Museum of Harlem through March 9, 2014.

 #Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.


[1] Cembalest, Robin. “Adrian Piper Pulls Out of Black Performance-Art Show.” ArtNews (October 25, 2013). http://www.artnews.com/2013/10/25/piper-pulls-out-of-black-performance-art-show/

[2] Ibid.

[3] As for whether Piper would ever withdraw her work from a show that was not ethnically focused, she did withdraw the work The Hypothesis Series (1968-69) from Joseph Kosuth’s 1970 exhibition Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects as a means of protest against the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings. http://www.adrianpiper.com/art/g_hypothesis_text.shtml

[4] Ahmed, Sara. “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.” Borderlands e-journal (Vol. 3, No. 2, 2004). http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm