The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' upcoming exhibition, Creando Historia/Making History in the Americas, is meant to engage conflicting narrative construction through nineteenth-century and modern-day American paintings. These paintings, hung side by side, contrast North and South American artists' conceptions and interpretations of historic events. Museum visitors will be forced to question their own acceptance of traditional accounts the past after being presented with noncontemporary imagery that has subsequently diffused communal (a)historical imagination and institutional memory.
"History Is Painted by the Victors, 2013." Kent Monkman.
Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.kentmonkman.com/
The work of Kent Monkman, a Canadian Kree artist, is set to be featured in the PAFA exhibition. Excited to learn about a fellow QPOC, I looked him up and came across History is Painted by the Victors (image above) – described as "a satirical queer-culture reversal of the European fetishization of the indigenous people." Amid the vast landscape, Miss Chief (Monkman's alter ego) paints, surrounded by naked, young white men, thus subverting the white colonial gaze. As I've previously discussed, the white colonial gaze is rather meta; it extends beyond the content of our primary source materials, be they art and/or written documents. The white colonial gaze defines both past and present narrative construction. As such, critical engagement with the (art) historian's positionality is paramount.
Some advice for white museum workers (courtesy of Brilliant Idea Studio):
- Do not used coded language. Don't talk around a subject. Don't use words like community or diversity when you mean a specific marginalized group. Be open and honest about your intentions.
- Do not "name drop" your marginalized visitors [to the press or funders]. Don't misrepresent your audience by selectively choosing [to talk about] a marginalized group. Don't seek external praise for working with marginalized groups.
- Don't take it personally. Take a step back from the conversation and let other voices fill the void. Don't take it personally if people don't want you to solve their problems.
I'd also ask that we stop using phrases like "given the current political climate," "at this critical moment," or "these troubled times." Oftentimes, white project leaders aspiring to promote inclusivity and critical dialogue (i.e., "difficult," "challenging," or "uncomfortable" conversations) contextualize their work in the present day by holding up the straw man of the Trump Administration and Neo-Nazi marches. White supremacy and racism have existed in perpetuity – they are foundational, institutional issues. The rise in their visibility for white people has been predicated on blatant public displays and biased media coverage. But we can't base our call to action in the so-called exceptionalism of the present moment. These issues are symptomatic of larger injustices of which POC have long been trying to convince white people. Now that white liberals-cum-saviors have come to their own "independent" conclusions, they are lauded for doing the same work with more resources and institutional support. POC have devoted significant amounts of emotional and intellectual labor to working on the same projects, but continue to go unacknowledged or be penalized. From exhibits about cultural genocide and gentrification, to the prison-industrial complex and HIV/AIDS in the Black gay community, time and time again I've seen white project leaders get credit for work that should, at the very least, have been collaborative – or was, but for which community members of color received no acknowledgement. (I'm thinking of how Grossi's "Funeral for a Home" article from last week mentioned Pastor Harry Moore, Sr. once, in passing, as the eulogizer; he was, in fact, largely responsible for connecting the white project leaders with their community contacts and promoting the project in the community.) We need to prioritize POC leadership, give due credit, be respectful, and work with and for people – such that the institution and its resources are offered as the medium and the tools for community-led interpretation.