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Artist Rafael Shimunov and his small exhibition protesting the Whitney Museum and Warren Kanders (photo by Cindi Trinh, courtesy Rafael Shimunov)

Following last weekend’s large Decolonize This Place protest inside the Whitney Museum of American Art, artist Rafael Shimunov thought that he should strike deeper into the institution’s heart while the smell of sage smoke still lingers.

Toward the back of the museum’s fourth floor, he says, was an empty wall with little security detail or surveillance. There, Shimunov and the group Art V War decided to install a miniature exhibition of their own — one commemorating Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg’s defense of vice chairman Warren B. Kanders, the manufacturer of the tear gas and smoke grenades hurled by US border agents at asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico in late November.

Installation view of Shimunov’s exhibition (photo by Cindi Trinh, courtesy Rafael Shimunov)

Shimunov’s installation attracted the attention of museumgoers, some of whom began sharing their own harrowing stories of migration. The artist estimates that approximately 70 people saw the guerrilla exhibition in the 30 minutes he monitored it before slipping away unnoticed. It’s unclear exactly when museum officials caught wind of the protest action, which included two artworks recreating the now-infamous images of a mother and her children suffering from a tear gas attack. Alongside the paintings, Shimunov included the following text:

The Whitney Museum of Art’s Vice Chairman owns weapons manufacturers that supply Trump’s attacks on families and children seeking asylum.

A movement of artists have [sic] emerged to refused to allow our institutions to side with hate

Search #WhitneyTearGas and sign the petition.

“When I first heard the news, I got really upset,” explains Shimunov to Hyperallergic. As a refugee with his parents from Uzbekistan, the images of mothers and children barraged by armed forces at the Tijuana border struck an emotional cord. But as an artist, he found it especially cruel that the Whitney Museum, which recently mounted a lauded exhibition of Indigenous Latinx practices, would continue to support someone like Kanders.

More than 100 staffers at the Whitney Museum signed a letter opposing the institution’s complicity with the Trump administration’s border policies. In response, Mr. Kanders later stated in a letter to the Whitney staff: “I am not the problem” and continued that “Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how [their products] are employed.” He added that his products, like the museum, are “important contributors to our society.”

Shimunov hopes that his art intervention will convince the museum that action is needed. Within Trump’s world, he says, people can live with shame, “but within [art] institutions there is no room for it. Ours could be a world where this guy is radioactive.”

“The Whitney needs to understand that this will only escalate if they do not take action,” Shimunov says.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

7 replies on “Artist Mounts Guerrilla Art Exhibition at Whitney Calling for Removal of Vice Chairman”

  1. “To be silent is to be complicit.”

    On Dec 3 Mr. Kanders responded to the letter from the Whitney museum staff.

    There hasn’t been a reported response from the various protest groups to his stand that he is not responsible for the actual use of the tear gas manufactured by his company .

    Rather, protesters continue with deluded assaults without concern for rational means to address international problems , including Mr. Rafael Shimunov who, in his guerrilla art display, virtually accuses Mr. Kanders of the ‘tear gas attack on a mother and her children’, which is as outrageous as blaming the brand of alcohol consumed for a drunken driver’s slaughter of children!

    This is an outrage to Truth !

    And in the face of this, “To be silent is to be complicit.”

    Life long Democrat, 100% against Trump, but it is an insult to me to have to stand next to and hear such blatant thoughtless crap. You are the reason why he was elected !

    1. No one has a “duty” to invest in either alcohol companies or tear gas, especially if they wanted to be unrelated to the harm they can do. It’s a choice they make. On the other hand, mindful investors could invest in a ton of other areas that are way more guaranteed to create a progressive and peaceful world.
      You say you’re against trump, but have you protested, have you been tear gassed?
      I’d be fine in a world without tear gas AND alcohol tbh. Cheers

      1. To be perfectly clear, attacking Mr. Kanders is a fundamentally flawed ‘protest against Trump’.

        Furthermore, my personal ‘protests’ are face to face with those who can make a difference in voting against the Repugs who support this lying psychopath ( which can be demonstrated almost daily).

        The ‘tear gas’ involved for me is metaphorical and deserved as much as those screaming in the streets following false and demented leaders, and imo the fewer involved in these ‘events’ the better for all of US.

        1. I’m not sure what data makes you think your way of protesting is “better” – I think it’s a very subjective point of view (as opposed to the non-subjective harm tear gas does produce). Maybe you enjoy several benefits at your work, that were made possible thanks to protesting… Look into the history of protest and the progress that came from it – Europe is a good example, they have great benefits and these didn’t grow on trees.

          1. The “non-subjective harm tear gas does produce” is exactly what I’m trying to avoid and more.

            What are u trying to do with ur ‘live action protests’ ?
            Change opinion – exercise ’n stress relief ?

            Or ramp it up and go for another Kent State with tear gas and live bullets, tanks and flame throwers -that’ll really change opinion! It’s the ploy being used , as I see it, with the ‘mother and child in the middle of a tear gas attack’ .

            If you ’support this’ you aren’t trying to calm things down.

            Yes, that’s my opinion, and there are plenty of opinions flying around like bullets that will be much more of a problem to deal with instantly face 2 face. My opinion, seems obvious 2 me….

            Sir, the times have changed since the protests you refer to, it can get much worse real fast in this World Wild Web of instant deceit.

          2. You probably shouldn’t tell people how to deal with their anger unless you can prove your anger is comparable to theirs. “Take a chill pill” or “let them eat cake” is not the right thing to say to protesters, especially if you claim to understand their feelings – pick a side.
            There are filthy rotten people in this world, and they need to be exposed very loudly and visibly by the people they do harm to – it must not be “calmed down” – are you kidding? Why would you want things to “calm down”? So the perpetrators can live peacefully and happily ever after?

          3. Excuse me, so you want the tear gas response from law enforcement ?

            I’m suggesting a strategy to engage in positive action that actually gets the results of reason.

            According to you and yours, what exactly are the actions that make others “filthy rotten people” ?
            Specifically in this case – is simply owning the tear gas company what you have in mind ?

            Mr. Kanders responded Dec 3rd – and what is your response – ?

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