'Left out of the discussion': Jenn Kidwell on being Donelle Woolford

Jenn Kidwell, who played Donelle Woolford at Whitney Biennial, reflects on the experience for @MvmntResearch

Jenn Kidwell, the performer who participated in one of the most controversial works of art of the year, has now written an essay about that experience.

Kidwell is known for portraying Donelle Woolford, a fictional black female painter conceived by white artist Joe Scanlan. The inclusion of the Woolford character as an artist in her own right in this year's Whitney Biennial unleashed months of fierce debate about the race dynamics of the art world. And the museum, along with the show's curators, were heavily criticized for incorporating a fictional black artist at a time when only a handful of real ones had made it into the show. (I wrote a long, reported piece about it back in June, in case you're looking for a refresher.)

Kidwell, who plays Woolford (along with fellow performer Abigail Ramsay), has written a reflection about that whole experience for the lastest issue of Movement Research Performance Journal. In it, she discusses how her participation in the piece was often belittled or looked over.

She writes:

[Abigail and I] are the performative authors in this project and Joe the visual author. We perform Donelle at her openings — Abigail even spent a month in residence at the ICA [in London] — as well as her performance pieces ... Our participation could complicate what many consider a clear example of exploitation. But, so far it hasn't, because Abigail and I have largely been left out of the discussion, as if we, like Donelle, do not exist.

She adds:

Despite the fact that we are makers of the project, we are most often parenthetically referred to as the "actors" Joe has "hired" for "his piece," and we have been treated as such by voices on all side of these debates and controversies: anonymous black bodies in service of a white male.

Kidwell's essay provides some interesting ideas to chew on, such as whose ideas are valued and how race can play into that equation. If you are near an artsy bookshop or a library, it's definitely worth picking up.

Find the full essay in Issue No. 45 of Movement Research Performance Journal. The article is not online, but you can subscribe to the journal or find it in the stacks at UCLA and UC Irvine. (In New York, the New York Public Library carries it.)

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