A January 2019 performance of Black Power Naps at Performance Space New York (photo by Avi Avion, courtesy Black Power Naps)

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has apologized to British-Ghanaian multidisciplinary artist Heather Agyepong after security asked her to leave an exhibition. The artist posted about her experience visiting the installation Black Power Naps on Twitter on Saturday, March 25, calling out the irony that she was asked to leave an installation created to encourage Black people to rest. 

According to Agyepong’s post, the conflict began when she noticed a White woman loudly laughing in the MoMA Education Department’s second-floor Creativity Lab. Agyepong says she approached the woman and said, “I think this space is centered around Black People.” The woman reportedly started screaming that Agyepong “was aggressive” and “should be kicked out” before complaining to a security guard who forced Agyepong to leave. (Agyepong has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)

On view at MoMA through May 14, artists Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa’s Black Power Naps intends to reclaim the concept of rest and repose for Black people. Studies show that Black Americans get less sleep than White Americans and that the sleep Black Americans manage to get is not as restful. The sculptural installation explores reparations by encouraging Black people to interact with the imaginative space and use its Traveling Biblioteca library to learn about “the politics of rest and refusal.” 

MoMA has not replied to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment. In a statement provided to The Art Newspaper, the museum said in the future it plans to work with the installation’s organizers to “protect the experiences of Black visitors and visitors from Indigenous communities and communities of color.” 

Some have commented that the incident reveals long-standing issues about how White institutions integrate Black people’s artworks into galleries and collections. The incident was puzzling to Los Angeles-based curator and writer Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi, who, in a Twitter thread, questioned whether the museum put infrastructure in place to protect the installation and its intended audience, especially considering both Black Power Naps creators, Acosta and Sosa, have expertise in structural racism training for cultural institutions. 

“I wonder if @MuseumModernArt and security got ‘The White Institution’s Guide for Welcoming Artists of Color and Their Audience,’” Onyewuenyi wrote.

Sosa wrote the guide that Onyewuenyi references, which sets parameters for how museums and other institutions can ethically engage with the work of artists of color. In the guide, Sosa writes, “One of the important things to think about when welcoming artists of color and their audience is what kind of infrastructure needs to accompany the event.”

“What happened to Heather is a nightmare,” Acosta told Hyperallergic. Both Acosta and Sosa confirmed that the museum apologized to Agyepong.

Since MoMA invited the duo, Acosta and Sosa have been working with the Education Department to implement their Black Power Naps readiness training, including racial sensitivity training for front and back-of-house staff and a social media campaign. Sosa and Acosta had hoped to mitigate the violence they and Black audience members have experienced engaging in this installation, which organizers say has brought 100 people an hour to MoMA’s Creativity Lab. (The room’s capacity is 100 people.)  

Until this incident, the artists say the museum ignored their concerns about potential violence. But now, Sosa says they’re working with MoMA to implement a justice framework for the show’s final weeks.

“We need to be able to put the people who are the most vulnerable in the center and center their voices and their needs,” said Acosta. “And in this case, Heather [Agyepong] is a part of the community we seek to represent in this space. I would say that her voice should have been centered in this whole thing.”

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School of...