Answering Generations of Silence
Juxtaposed by an engulfing struggle, a calming serenity grounds Titus Kaphar’s Yet Another Fight for Remembrance. At the painting’s forefront stands two young men—their hands raised as an honorific motif to another Black life’s unjust abbreviation. Though the subjects are accompanied by hundreds, we make out little more than a blurred amalgam of ebony forearms behind them. The work’s murky red backlighting cements the tireless chaos. It was Michael Brown this time.
Kaphar emphatically memorializes this moment of unrest—yet another juncture in history where we put our lives on the line to profess our right to life on blood-stained lands. “The act of painting itself becomes a fight to remember the names of all the young Black men who were taken too soon,” Kaphar said in an interview with TIME, “A fight to remember that when this issue disappears from the media, it is not permission to forget…change is possible.”
In a 2017 TED Talk, Kaphar asks his audience to contemplate those whose stories are deemed too unimportant to advance through history. Citing Frans Hals’ quasi-Baroque group portrait Family Group in a Landscape, he stresses how the single Black figure’s evanescence reflects a much more pervasive motif of art history: silencing Black voices through the relative valorization of white ones.
After revealing a self-made replica of Hals’ painting, Kaphar demands his audience contemplate the muted figure by covering the ivory protagonists with linseed oil-infused white paint. His gesture is not erasure, for the oil will eventually reveal the subjects that it blankets; this temporal eclipse is instead an insistence that the audience “shift [their] gaze, just a little bit.” As much as his live workshop is an eloquent scrutiny of those privileged with holistic representation, the creative himself stands at the apex of a lineage of Black artists demanding visibility.
It is time that artistic cultural organizations answer this generational insistence for responsible inclusion and representation.
As the debate over controversial statues and monuments rages on, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has become the latest cultural institution to reconsider its representations of the past. In a June 21 statement, the museum requested that the City of New York remove the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt monument fixed before its entrance. “The statue itself communicates a racial hierarchy that the museum and members of the public have long found disturbing,” they declared.
Flanked by two men, one Black and one Native, Roosevelt’s horse-backed pirch is a chillingly insidious commentary on hierarchy—an ominous declaration of who matters, and who does not. This symbolism has inaugurated visitors’ experience with the museum since 1940. In an interview with The New York Times, AMNH president Ellen V. Futter said that the piece’s “hierarchical composition” in tandem with the “ever-widening movement for racial justice” make the decision a “simple” one.
While removing the statue is indeed obvious and necessary, less obvious are other means by which museums uphold white supremacy. Contemplating these more subtle affirmations, the AMNH sets an instructive precedent for such action by committing to provide “new context and perspectives, presenting the history and rationale for the statue while explicitly acknowledging its troubling aspects.” Rather than erasing the monument as a chapter of the museum’s past, the AMNH has instead dedicated an exhibit to present “the intention of the original planning commission as well as the intentions of the architect who designed the memorial and the sculptor who created the statue; the ways in which the statue is interpreted today; and multiple perspectives on how the statue might be addressed in the future.” They are using this crossroads as an opportunity for re-education.
As our national moment situates cultural organizations akin to the AMNH to fall like dominoes—one by one, drawing attention to the troubling implications of their exhibits and the artists who comprise them—peer institutions must likewise wean themselves off a silencing elixir of bigotry and hate. Examining “An open letter to New York City’s Cultural Institutions,” employees of these organizations themselves call for the unconscious stewards of white supremacy to acknowledge their participation in systemic oppression, not hide from its glaring omnipresence.
“An exhibit in [a] museum…can be placed in context by labels that critique or take issue with some aspects of a historical figure’s beliefs or actions,” said Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale in a statement for The Politic. Cécile Fromont, an associate professor in History of Art at Yale additionally accents how cultural institutions themselves are steel and glass “neoclassical temples” cementing enclosed works in a history of, “European nation-building and imperial ambitions.” As such, “only with robust displays that entail uncomfortable confrontations with museum goers’ prejudice can museums confront that past.”
There are, of course, some objects that are “just too offensive to show in museums.” Barringer recognized the ghoulish reality of such objects when curating “Art and Emancipation in Jamaica”: “When we curated [the exhibition]…we decided not to show some of the caricatures from the period because they were simply too offensive in their characterization of Afro-Jamaican people, even though they were historical objects.”
“Museums have immense power as institutions,” said History of Art student Simon Ghebreyesus ‘21 in a statement for The Politic. Dilating the themes discussed by Fromont and Barringer, he continues, “They have an unquestioned role [to play] as the arbiters of what art is and isn’t worth appreciation, contemplation, time—you name it. Through wall labels, educational programming, and curatorial efforts—down to the placement of works on walls—museums have the ability to provide the baseline education that should accompany all of these works.”
What Barringer, Fromont and Ghebreyesus reference in symphony is not a series of flaccid acknowledgements, but instead, a candid, integrous, and provocative inclusion that rectifies historic harm; an inclusion that strips away the layers of tradition protecting art history’s most dehumanizing elements—that presents the history as whole. Museums are tombs of cultural preservation; their walls’ curation condense years of human development, interaction and growth into a granular snapshot of our existence. Life and art’s cyclical relation means that what we show and how we show it matters. To minimize, misrepresent, or erase traumatic history in this arena is to deny the work of those who seek liberation to this day.