The curatorial scheme of the Race and Revolution exhibition at Nolan Park on Governors Island is bold and seditious. The curator of the show, Katie Fuller, has located some troublesome histories in documents dating to the American Revolution that pertain to the treatment of indigenous people and had contemporary artists respond, fostering conversations on race and racism.
You might think with this kind of premise, the show would grab a fistful of your collar and not let go — especially when you see some of the texts. Fuller found correspondence that details heinous instructions from George Washington to one of his generals, Major General John Sullivan, regarding their military campaign against the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: “The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners … as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops and prevent their planting more.” This suggests Washington saw his mission as more than ensuring the survival of the colonists, or that he thought their survival was contingent on the complete destruction of one of the main tribal organizations of the indigenous people. To call for the destruction of an enemies’ food supply is far more than degrading their ability to make war; it’s a short step away from the path of an outrightly genocidal campaign.
But then I look at the work and try to make sense of the conversation on race and racism taking place and find that the phrases contained are so scattershot the exhibition doesn’t read as a coherent whole. There’s not much integument holding the pieces together. This is because Fuller, as she conveyed to me, selected these artists because they represented varied geographic and cultural backgrounds, and that they were already exploring sociopolitical issues in their practices. Additionally, she gave the artists an array of texts to which they fashioned responses, so the show ends up being a kaleidoscope, a variety of light wavelengths refracting through very disparate lenses.
There are pieces like Jen Painter’s “I’m William” (2016) that features a photograph of a boy, who identifies with the Jamaican soccer team, in which the background is black and white and the child is rendered in color — an obvious play on the idea of being of color. Yet, the work is also strange. The artist takes what seems like a stream of consciousness testimony of how William thinks the world should be, a kind of nascent philosophy of being, and turns that inelegant but feeling prose into a collection of seemingly random phrases that are given line breaks like poetry: “same first day I start liked becoming friends yes how We / know different school.” However, neither the form nor the content quite worked for me — neither as conceptual poetry nor as an indication of how this child’s thoughts are shaped by considerations of race.
Directly across the room from that work is a piece by Nicholas Galanin, “You Are on Indisneyian Land” (2016), that consists of a fireplace and mantle overflowing with red cedar wood chips. The chips originate from Sitka, Alaska, and are the products of a separate art project that Galanin and several other Indigenous artists have been working on in Sitka National Park. Atop the mantle is a large photograph that looks like the documentation of a tourist snapshot. The image depicts white tourists playfully interacting with an enormous totem outside of a tourist welcome center — two children peek out from behind the totem while the parents take the picture. It’s an incisive piece that speaks to the destruction of indigenous people by gesturing toward the transmutation of their symbols, into mere scenic backdrops for the leisure pursuits of white families on holiday. That these symbols have been reduced to playthings for tourists is a coda to the brutal narrative of indigenous people’s military subjugation and internment in reservations — a fact I have to reconcile with the rich smell of the cedar chips that wafts over me. The work is provocative, though it diverges wildly from Painter’s work — concerned with immigrant populations and their attempts to ideologically make themselves a home in new land — with which it is paired.
Nona Faustine, whose work I have written about before, is also in the show. Her white shoes project, a meditation on the historical after-effects of slavery, deserves a mention, though again, it too seems to occupy its own private demesne of meaning here because the story of African bodies being shipped to the Americas and sold into bondage is its own complex and sprawling narrative. In the context of this entire exhibition that offers work dealing with voluntary immigration, the carceral state, the systematic ill treatment of indigenous people, and police brutality, Faustine’s work is too easily drawn into the role of illustrating the simplistic conception of whiteness being commensurate with the hatred and fear of people of color.
The most haunting work in the show is Ann Lewis’s “… and counting” (2016), a hanging curtain of toe tags for the bodies of people who have been killed by police officers. The explanatory notes are grim: “Dog was also killed”; “was armed”; “was homeless”; “tasered to death”: “was not a suspect”; “was bipolar, officers knew.” Even worse are the ones that are blank, an indication that more bodies are coming.
If there is one cogent idea here it is that this nation, which is home to many different tribes and ethnicities, has long been and continues to be actively hostile to some — most often the people of color. This is a nation founded upon white supremacy. But we know this. If you are an adult who has long lived in the US and is not in denial you likely know this. So what are we to take from this — pain, surprise?
Still, despite the flaws, I recommend seeing this show. It’s likely that some reading this will be fatigued by our halting and abortive attempts to forthrightly deal with the costs of our racialized and dishonest foundation, but when confronted with the wrenching conclusion that the average black family would require 228 years to build the wealth of the average white one today, I submit that we need to talk about race and racism until all these black (and brown too) families have arrived. However, we need to carry out these conversations with greater rigor.
Correction: A previous version of this review stated that the figure in Jen Painter’s work was a Jamaican immigrant. This is incorrect and has been amended.