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.
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.