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Art and race at the Whitney: Rethinking the Donelle Woolford debate

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Jenn Kidwell talks about her role in controversial Donelle Woolford piece: 'Why am I being erased from it?'
The controversy regarding a racially charged work at Whitney Biennial hasn't gone away. Here's the story:
An actor in the #WhiBi's most controversial piece talks to @cmonstah: 'The piece is beyond successful'

Three weeks after the closing of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, even as the museum has stripped its galleries of the exhibiton’s videos, sculptures and paintings to make way for a Jeff Koons retrospective, the debate over one of its works lives on.

Questions about race, gender and authenticity first erupted last November when the Whitney Museum of American Art named the 103 artists and collectives participating in the spring Biennial. The list, by most counts, contained just nine African American artists – one of whom was the fictional creation of a white, male artist. 

Donelle Woolford, pictured on the museum’s website as an African American woman and described as an artist born in 1977 in Conyers, Ga., is actually the invention of 52-year-old artist Joe Scanlan, professor and director of the visual arts program at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. A pair of female African American actors hired by Scanlan – Jenn Kidwell and Abigail Ramsay – portray Woolford in performance works, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes independently. Scanlan wasn't listed in the press announcement, nor is he mentioned on the artist's page of the Biennial's website or the exhibition catalog. For that matter, neither are Kidwell or Ramsay.

This brought the informal tally of black artists in the Biennial down to eight. (The presence of collectives can skew artist counts and the Whitney would not confirm the number of the exhibition's African American artists.) For a Biennial that promised the "profoundly diverse and hybrid cultural identity of America today" this was not a good start.

I'll admit that when I first heard about Donelle Woolford, I was ready to hate on the concept. In fact, I did — in a few cranky tweets and various Facebook comments. The piece, in my view, felt like a slap in the face: white artist gets lauded by a major career-making institution for dealing with race; everyone else, not so much. How could the Whitney possibly justify including this work in a Biennial that included only eight "real" black artists, only one of them a woman? (That woman, incidentally, was taisha paggett, an L.A.-based dancer and choreographer whose presence at the Whitney was ephemeral, lasting only for a series of performances at the museum held over a period of five days.)

However, reporting this story, and speaking with the artist and actor Jenn Kidwell in particular, has complicated my views on Donelle Woolford and the purpose she serves.

Certainly, Scanlan's piece touches a nerve. Early reports on the Huffington Post and Hyperallergic decried the lack of diversity, of both race and gender (just under a third of the entire exhibition's artists were women). This spring, an essay published in the New Inquiry went deeper, describing the show as "The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women." A month later, respected artist and critic Coco Fusco followed up with her own interesting take in the Brooklyn Rail, examining the Woolford piece from within the context of art school's — and by extension, the art world's — avoidance of messy topics like institutional racism.

In mid-May, things really got heated when the collective known as HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, known informally as the Yams Collective, withdrew from the Biennial. That action came in part over objections to Scanlan's piece, in addition to what it alleged was disrespectful treatment on the part of the museum.

The museum responded to the incident with a short statement: "While we understand and respect the decision of HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, we support all the artists in the Biennial and the curatorial choices of the exhibition’s three curators. The Whitney Biennial has always been a site for debate — no matter how contentious or difficult — of the most important issues confronting our culture." It's been the only thing it has said on the matter. (Representatives of the Whitney declined to be interviewed for this story.)

All the while, social media platforms have been abuzz with talk about the Woolford piece. One Facebook exchange to which I've been privy has been going on consistently since January — with Scanlan's participation as well as Woolford's (though it's been unclear who has been participating on her behalf). At press time it contained nearly 800 comments and when printed, occupied more than 70 pages. The group isn't publicly visible, so I will refrain from quoting at length. But suffice it to say that it reads like a high-brow flame war, with talk of "conceptual blackface," "white male privilege," postmodern "tropes" and "Friedian affect of theatricality." (Art nerds all up in your grill!)

The piece has stirred all kinds of debate about what the artist's motivations could have been: Was this a coy way of commenting on affirmative action, on the supposed "advantages" conferred on certain underrepresented minorities? Was it out-and-out cultural appropriation? Another example of the white mainstream taking on some aspect of African American life and using it for professional gain? Was it conceptual blackface?

Or was it, as Scanlan said, akin to a work of theater, in which writer, director and actor collaborate on something greater than the sum of its parts? The piece raised all kinds of questions about race. But was it raising the same old ones? And providing stale answers to boot?

Donelle Woolford came into existence in 1999 when Scanlan was at Yale University. At the time, he created another character too: a figure called Steve "Canal" Jones, a working-class white male born in Niagara Falls who creates modest wood collages that he refers to as "hillbilly cubism."

Scanlan says creating these fictional characters has long been an area of interest. "I love the work...I like the idea of having an all-encompassing entity be understood as a work of art," he explains via email.

And he likes the challenges of fabricating a piece as if he were someone else: "I really like putting on my Donelle thinking cap and making her work — troubling over all the issues that painters trouble over," he says, "precisely because I am not a painter." (Scanlan's own work has consisted largely of sculpture and some of the concepts that surround it.)

For roughly five years, Scanlan produced paintings, collages and other art under these two different guises. In 2001, as Jones, he published "Commerce 3: Poststructuralism in Country and Western Music," a CD-ROM that examined the "intellectual tendencies" of country music. A year later, he published a critique, as Woolford, of the Los Angeles home of Jorge Pardo built for a Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit on Mount Washington’s Sea View Lane.

In 2004, he shelved the Jones character to focus on Woolford. The following year, he hired an actor to play her in her first live performance.

In the art world, inhabiting a fictional character in order to produce work is not new. Marcel Duchamp had a female alter ego called Rrose Sélavy. There is Lester Hayes, the African American artist conjured by a pair of white New York gallerists. At the 2008 Whitney Biennial there was a Miami collective called BLCK, not really a collective, but the invention of a single Haitian-born artist. And late last year, L.A.'s Launch Gallery showed the work of the Namaak Collective, a group that was allegedly founded in Amsterdam, but is actually the work of Los Angeles artists Marischa Slusarski and Britt Ehringer.  

Certainly, there are other examples of role-playing in art, from the comical (Maurizio Cattelan getting a curator to play him at public appearances), to the more controversial (Elizabeth Durack, a white Australian painter who took on the identity of a fictional aboriginal painter named Eddie Burrup). But even if the intentions are pure, once race enters the game — especially when it's a white artist conjuring  the identity of a marginalized group — the territory can quickly get prickly.

In 2010, Scanlan told Bomb Magazine that he invented Donelle Woolford after creating a number of collages in his studio and deciding "they would be more interesting if someone else made them, someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references."

He added that he felt entitled to create the Woolford work because "there is a long history of black characters created by white authors...I don't understand needing permission to do it.”

To many of those who read the 2010 interview during this most recent Whitney Biennial debate, his answer smacks of the worst kind of cultural appropriation. It doesn’t help that Bomb had a white poet interview a white artist about a piece that centered on a black female figure, giving the impression that the art world was perfectly happy to carry on a conversation about black people, so long as it didn't have to include them.

Rebecca Peabody, who is head of research programs and projects at the Getty Research Institute, and studies representations of race, gender and ethnicity in 20th century art says that white artists who take on African American identities are doing so under the shadow of some problematic historical antecedents.

"Artists who engage in this kind of performance should not be surprised to have minstrelsy brought up as a precedent for their work," she says. Even if the work isn't minstrelsy per se — "a performance based around stereotypes" — it raises other issues, Peabody explains. "What makes it provocative is what's at stake. Power and privilege continue to be distributed unequally, so projects that involve appropriation of racial identity raise questions about opportunity and intent. Who is in the position to take these kinds of actions and what does it mean?"

Scanlan tells me that part of the reason he started the piece was to examine issues of persona in art — and how much an artist's biography has to do with the way a work is perceived.

"I think that much of the art world, even the most straightforward, conventional type of show, has become theatrical," he writes in an email. "There is a heightened sense of self-regard (for better and worse) for everyone and everything in the room. I couldn't say yet whether Donelle Woolford speaks to this self-regard critically or merely exploits it. I can only say that my awareness of this has been amplified by working on the project."

But even if Woolford was created to examine the twisted anthropology of the art world, there is still something pretty loaded about a white man creating a black woman to do that.

This is something Scanlan acknowledges: "It's true. In the beginning, I saw it more as a right and obligation that I had as an artist to be willing to engage with all parts of the world, just as any novelist or screenwriter would. But I have always been aware of how fraught the power relation of myself to Donelle Woolford is. I am interested in that trouble and in seeing if it can be destabilized by taking it too far, on the one hand, but also by seeing if it can be dismantled, piece by piece."

Kidwell, one of the actors who plays Woolford, first learned of the gig through the website Actors Access. I spoke to her via telephone at her home in Philadelphia. "He explained the project and you know what I said to him?," she asks. "I said, 'No, I don't want to be involved in your post-colonial [trash].' But then we talked further and discussed how important identity is to the way we receive art. It then became a personal challenge to me, investigating that question of why that is so important and how it changes an audience's relationship to an artwork."

Kidwell is a graduate of Columbia University, where she majored in English and comparative literature. She's done stints at the Public Theater in New York and recently completed a two-year program at the Pig Iron Theater in Philadelphia. Most recently, she appeared in the Robert Wilson opera "Zinnias" in Lyon, France.

She is acerbic and funny, yet purposely plays Woolford as her opposite: "She doesn't like to talk, she doesn't like to laugh, she is very quiet, and she is very awkward." For this portrayal, Kidwell says she has gotten some criticism. "Years ago, I had a woman in Chicago who told me that I had the responsibility to play Donelle 'well,'" she recalls. "But I rebel against that for my own artistic development. For both Joe and I, it's an experiment about being outside of ourselves. He does this by making things he wouldn't make under his own name. And I do that by making this character."

She adds: "I'm not interested in her being a fool. I'm interested — perhaps selfishly — in art-making. I'm interested in what is going to challenge me."

As part of the Whitney Biennial, Kidwell went on tour to arts institutions around the country this past spring, doing a performance called "Dick's Last Stand" as Woolford, in which she re-created an old Richard Pryor routine. The piece was a turducken of conceptualism: Jenn Kidwell as Donelle Woolford as Richard Pryor — an outgoing actor portraying an awkward fictional character getting outside of herself by performing as an iconic comedian. (There is video online.)

Kidwell says that despite all the online controversy, audiences for her shows were surprisingly welcoming. "Only one person has given me flak to my face," she says. "It was a professor who worked with Pryor and he told me that Pryor wouldn't have liked it. He didn't like that I was dressing in men's clothes."

Over the years, the artistic relationship between Scanlan and the actors has evolved, with Kidwell and Ramsay exerting far more influence than they did in the beginning. It was Kidwell, in fact, who had the idea for Woolford to do a performance as Richard Pryor. (Ramsay could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Scanlan puts it this way, "I 'founded' the ensemble of Donelle Woolford, but at this point it is an ongoing, loosely organized small working group."

Kidwell concurs: "It originated with Joe, but this is now a collaboration."

And Scanlan says that his attitude toward the work over time has also evolved. If at first he approached it with "hubris," he writes, that has since been "followed by humility, then curiosity, then resolve."

Even so, Kidwell says she is frequently grilled on whether she is collaborator or pawn. "I had someone say, 'He could fire you,' and I say, 'I could quit,'" she recounts. "Other people have said, 'No, you are not a collaborator!' And I'm like, 'How are you telling me that I'm not doing what I'm saying I'm doing?'"

All of this gets at one of the critical points of the piece, which is the contentious historical relationship between white men and black women, one that is loaded with connotations of abuse of power. Kidwell says that, from her perspective, that is exactly the point.

"People have said, 'Joe Scanlan wouldn't be in the Whitney Biennial if Donelle Woolford wasn't black,'" she says. "Well, Donelle Woolford wouldn't be in the Whitney Biennial if Scanlan wasn't white. The whole thing, to some degree — it's a successful exposure of that fraught historical relationship, of that exploitation."

This raises an interesting idea, one that points from Donelle Woolford straight to the greater art world, where underrepresented artists often occupy token positions. "I could be doing the Richard Pryor piece myself and nobody would care," says Kidwell. "I do a lot of stuff that nobody cares about. The piece is beyond successful in that it shines a light on who gets the attention, who gets listened to."

In a brief email exchange, the Biennial's guest co-curator Michelle Grabner says that she included the work because it explored "'voice' and authorship in contemporary art" and that the paintings "poke at Richard Prince's joke paintings, an iconic appropriation art."

With the Whitney remaining silent on the case, it means that Grabner, an independent curator from Chicago, has become the institution's de facto public face in the controversy. So I ask her why there weren't more underrepresented artists in the Biennial.

"As an artist," she replies, "I am compelled by all types of artwork: critical, formal, process-based, political. This is how I think about diversity and representation in my curatorial endeavors. Art criticism, as Samuel Beckett says, 'is not bookkeeping.'" She also points out that her floor at the Whitney opens with a photograph of Barack Obama by African American photographer Dawoud Bey — a frustrating response.

To lay this all on Grabner, and even the Whitney, however, misses the point. The issue the work raises is far bigger. In 2011, the American Assn. of Museums published data that shows that nearly 80% of museum workforces are white. Likewise, non-Hispanic whites account for almost 80% of museum visitors. Which means that in their hiring practices and in the audiences they court, museums do not come close to reflecting the demographic realities of the United States. (According to the Census, the U.S. is just 63% non-Hispanic white.)

Every time one of these studies is published, there is a brief bout of Internet tsk-tsking before it all dies down and everyone goes back to business as usual. But the Donelle Woolford piece has made us confront the topic as part of a regular social media storm.

It puts the spotlight on the limited advances made by underrepresented minorities inside the power structures of America's biggest arts institutions. All three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial are white, as they were in the Biennial before that. The museum currently has no African American curators. (Though it has had African American curators in the past, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the museum had given solo shows to artists such as Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Mark Bradford and Lorna Simpson.)

The Donelle Woolford piece, for better or worse, intentionally or not, pulled the curtain back on this inequity — and has held it back for months. It got us talking about who is in charge, not just in terms of white male artists over black female ones, but in the makeup of the very institutions that commission and display work. 

Even the framing of the public discussion about the piece has been telling. "I haven't been contacted for my opinion as much as one would expect given that this is my work as well," says Kidwell, who has been interviewed only by a handful of writers, including Andrew Russeth at Gallerist.

"I've felt un-addressed," she says. "There is a black artist present in this piece. Why am I erased from it? Why do I continue to be erased from it?"

Kidwell's first passion is theater, where she intends to remain. But in her time as Donelle, she's had a front-row seat to art-industry politics. "I went in the back door of the party," she says. "The question now is, will I be the life of the party? Will there be other parties? Or will all I have to say about this is that I got in?"

Good question. Museums, it's your move.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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