Art collective withdraws from Whitney Biennial over race dispute

Let’s say you decided to attend an art show. You see a black woman named Donelle Woolford perform a 40-minute set impersonating Richard Pryor’s performance in the last episode of his eponymous 1977 television show.

Okay, strange, but it’s art, so strange is allowed, right? It’s practically mandatory in some cases.

You go home, you Google this woman, and you find her Web site. You learn about her background: She’s from Detroit. Her work: It’s not just limited to weird Richard Pryor reenactments. She’s written a book called “Dick Jokes.” She’s been photographed in her studio for the New York Times Magazine.

Well, if you bought that, you’ve been catfished.

Woolford isn’t even a real person, much less an artist. She came from the imagination of a white Princeton professor named Joe Scanlan who created her — and her Web site — and then hired actresses to play her in an elaborate piece of performance art that’s been going on for years. He’s the one who created the art installations attributed to her. The ruse was so fascinating to a co-curator of this year’s Whitney Biennial that she decided to include him in the show.

That presented a problem: The Yams Collective, the largest of eight collectives participating in the biennial, has withdrawn in protest over Scanlan’s inclusion.

The Yams is a group of 38 mostly black and mostly queer artists. (Their name is short for short for “HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?,” or “How Do You Say Yam in African?” It’s a bit of cleverness; you can’t say yam, or anything else for that matter, in African, because “African” isn’t a language). The biennial was home to their first public project, a film called “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera.” Hyperallergic reported the group pulled the film from future showings this week because of Scanlan’s presence.

“We felt that the representation of an established academic white man posing as a privileged African-American woman is problematic, even if he tries to hide it in an avatar’s mystique,” Maureen Catbagan, a member of the collective, told Hyperallergic. “It kind of negates our presence there, our collaborative identity as representing the African diaspora.”

The New York Times explained why the group’s participation was so noteworthy:

The Yams are the largest of eight collectives in a show whose demographics are always dissected for how they reflect the contemporary-art scene. “It’s been like group therapy for me to do this project,” Ms. [Sienna] Shields, the director of the Yams’ film, said. “I’d go to art events, and I’d be the only black person in the room — here in New York. It was ridiculous: There’s all this vast talent. I thought of all the great people I’d known in my years in New York and I thought, ‘Let’s exert ourselves!'”

The Whitney Biennial is one of the most respected shows in modern art, a distinguished showcase that often sets the latest trends. Like much of the art world, it’s criticized when those doing the trendsetting are artists who are overwhelmingly white and male. The Yams aren’t the first group to protest the Biennial when it comes to issues of race. The Guerrilla Girls, a feminist group of artists and activists whose aim is to achieve parity in the recognition of women and minority artists, explained a protest poster from 1993:

The 1993 Whitney Biennial was the first ever to have a minority of white male artists. It was also the most reviled and criticized Biennial in recent history. In 1995 the museum returned to previous miniscule percentages of artists of color.That’s why when we tried to typeset the word Whitney, we just couldn’t find the letter “n.”

In 1987, the Guerilla Girls protested the museum’s paucity of female artists and artists of color with an exhibition. The Guerilla Girls explained on their Web site:

The Clocktower, a New York exhibition space, asked us to do a show during the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial in 1987. They expected us to do a show of art we thought should be in the Biennial. Instead, we decided to do an exhibition of information exposing the museum’s pathetic and worsening record on women and artists of color. All of the statistics came from the museum’s own publications. A deep throat passed us confidential information about the lives of the museum’s trustees.

THE LO-DOWN FROM 1987: No black woman had ever been chosen for a Whitney Biennial since 1973; Of the 30 non-white artists who had been in the biennials since 1973, only 3 have had work acquired for the museum collection; More than 70 artists had been chosen for more than one Biennial. Only one of them was non-white; The Whitney’s acquisition of art by women had never exceeded 14% in any year. In 1984 only 9% of its acquisitions were of women artists; The work of men chosen for the Biennial was acquired by the museum twice as often as the work of women chosen for the Biennial; More than 70% of the acquisitions of art by women in the Biennials up untl then had taken place in the 1970’s; The museum already owned works by 12 of the 43 artists in the 1987 Biennial show; Between 1982 – 1987 there had been only one solo show of a woman artist at The Whitney.

Donelle Woolford's Web site, created by Joe Scanlan. Donelle Woolford’s Web site, created by Joe Scanlan.

The Biennial closes May 25. Hyperallergic said the group finally withdrew after exhausting other avenues to address their concerns, namely reaching out to Whitney curator Michelle Grabner. Catbagan said their effort was met with a “non-response.”

Grabner spoke with the New York Observer in advance of the show.

“I am not nervous about including Donelle, but I will not be surprised if there was push back,” she said. “It excites me to think that there are projects and artists who can still rattle the rafters. Joe Scanlan and Donelle Woolford are purposefully, not recklessly, doing just that.”

Scanlan explained his motivations for creating Woolford in an interview with Bomb magazine:

Donelle Woolford began ten years ago when I first appropriated her name from a professional football player I admired. After the first collages happened in my studio, I liked them but they seemed like they would be more interesting if someone else made them, someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references. So I studied the collages for a while and let them tell me who their author should be.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.

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