LOS ANGELES — Hours after news of the Ferguson grand jury decision swept the country, artists and audience members gathered at the volunteer-run space Human Resources to discuss the ways in which artists can intervene against structural racism, not just in the art world but the world at large. The panel consisting of artist Carolyn Castaño and playwright Ricardo Abreu Bracho was the second in a series of community forums titled “Decolonizing the White Box,” the first of which drew a crowd of almost 200 in late October.
A third panelist, artist Amitis Motevalli, was scheduled to attend but bowed out at the last minute because of the Ferguson decision, writing on the event’s Facebook page: “I’m sorry I can’t do the panel tonight. I’ve been doing work around police killings since I was 21. I didn’t expect an indictment nor did I think it would equate to justice but need to protest the killings and the dehumanizations after people are killed.”
While racism and a lack of diversity in art world institutions may have initially spurred the forums and their participants, recent events related to anti-black violence and immigration reform infused much of the discussion around what a decolonizing art practice might be. Reading from an essay, Ricardo Abreu Bracho proposed decolonization by way of gaining autonomy, seizing mechanisms of production, and redressing the wrongs of a colonial past.
“We cannot think through the potential of decolonization of the gallery or museum white box without interrogating the grey box of prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers,” he said.
For Bracho, the organizing of scholar Nicole R. Fleetwood around prison arts and activism, the “next-level aesthetics without art world elitism” of LA’s Maricón Collective, the black feminist time travel of playwright Sigrid Gilmer, and the hacktivist interventions of artist Fran Ilich comprise notable efforts to “obliterate the white box.”
Imagery and stories of the drug wars and armed conflicts in Latin America inform the paintings and drawings of Carolyn Castaño, who uses her work to examine the centuries-old legacy of colonization in Colombia and Mexico. Among the subjects of her many slide images were botanical drawings by 18th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt, indigenous uses of the coca plant, cocaine production in mountain villages, the Gold Museum in Bogotá, and the clandestine graves of disappeared men and women. Colorful tropical landscapes and decapitated heads in Castaño’s paintings allude to the historical iconography of Colombia as well as the human and environmental toll of the drug wars.
Following the panelists’ discussion, moderator and Human Resources Director Jennifer Doyle asked the audience to share their thoughts on decolonization and how the space could better serve that end. Some called for a forum dedicated to only people of color, like the L.A. POC ONLY ARTIST NETWORK, while others balked at the idea of being exclusionary. The work of decolonizing the white box, similar to the ongoing fight against the kind of structural racism that killed Mike Brown, is unlikely to resolve itself in one night.
“I felt like maybe it was obscene to talk about art with what’s happened with the Michael Brown case,” Castaño said at one point. “But maybe it’s a perfect moment being here together, talking about all of these things and spreading ideas and a common cause. Eventually, maybe something will shift or change.”
The work of artists like Castaño does not separate aesthetic and political concerns — the latter are front and center in her paintings, complicating the beauty of her images with the darkness of real human suffering. However, a work of art can never be a substitute for political and economic action, and it’s helpful to understand what art can and cannot accomplish.
Perhaps that understanding was what compelled Motevalli to take to the streets instead of attending the panel, and what Bracho meant when he said, “One’s tears or poems or drawings do not decolonize anything.” It is the difficult work of political organizing in tandem with aesthetic practices that will ultimately accomplish the shift or change we hope for. The conversation I heard and the willingness of many audience members to collaborate seemed to suggest that an alternative is within reach.