BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 13 NOV 20

The Racial Imaginary Institute’s Quiet Takeover of David Kordansky

The LA gallery partners with TRII to present an online show on the ‘counterhistories’ of Black experience, but should we ask more of galleries in their antiracist efforts?

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BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 13 NOV 20

In 2016, the poet Claudia Rankine founded The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII), a collaboration of writers, curator and activists who, according to their website, aim to activate ‘interdisciplinary work and a democratised exploration of race in our lives […] a moving collaboration with other collectives, spaces, artists and organisations towards art exhibitions, readings, dialogues, lectures, performances and screenings that engage the subject of race.’ Two years later, TRII began a conversation with David Kordansky Gallery (now touting itself as the Institute’s ‘West Coast outpost’) that yielded an online group programme called ‘Listening for the Unsaid’, which comes on the heels of a year of sustained activism around issues of race and gender-identification, state power and art-world conservatism.

Azikiwe Mohammed Approximate Weight Of My Hair From Birth To Age 35, 2020 bronze and kitchen scale, 29.2 x 17.8 x 11.4 cm. Courtesy the artists and David Kordansky, Los Angeles
Azikiwe Mohammed Approximate Weight Of My Hair From Birth To Age 35, 2020 bronze and kitchen scale, 29.2 x 17.8 x 11.4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles 

The show, curated by Rankine and five TRII collaborators, features work from seven artists and one collective that runs the gamut from protest signage to performance to digital fabrication. The fragmented quality here is fitting, given the nominal organisation of the exhibition around the idea of generating an archive of ‘counterhistories’ of Black experience, drawing on the essay ‘Venus in Two Acts’ (2008) by Saidiya Hartman – for several decades the most incisive theorist of structural racism as foundational to the West’s social and economic experiment, and the concomitant implications for Black subjectivity. To wit, as Hartman and others have argued, a precondition of the Western project is the dehumanisation of its Black citizenry even as it holds out the false promise of equity. Interspersed throughout the browser-window flow of deep-fried American flags (Kiyan Williams, How Do You Properly Fry an American Flag, 2020) and gold-plated raised fists (Azikiwe Mohammed, Approximate Weight of My Hair from Birth to Age 35, 2020, and Black Receipt #5, 2017), her probing questions ask: ‘What are the stories one tells in dark times? How can a narrative of defeat enable a place for the living or envision an alternative future?’

Kiyan Williams How Do You Properly Fry an American Flag (Study 2), 2020 nylon flag flown over the U.S. capitol building deep fried in oil, flour, salt, and paprika on vellum flag, 10.2 x 15.2 cm. Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles
Kiyan Williams How Do You Properly Fry an American Flag (Study 2), 2020, nylon flag flown over the U.S. capitol building deep fried in oil, flour, salt, and paprika on vellum flag, 10.2 x 15.2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles

In a sense, this is nothing new: Black artists the world over have long taken up our damaged history of the West by means archival or otherwise; such speculative futures and lost horizons underscore the internationalist project of yore and Afrofuturisms of more recent years. Yet, the galvanizing principle of ‘Listening for the Unsaid’ is, indeed, the ‘dark times’ of 2016 and beyond, in which the body politic of the global North underwent an x-ray, revealing currents of hatred and violence that are not new, not aberrations. It’s here, in the moving photographs of Jon Henry, who for several years has pictured Black mothers around the US – Miami, Little Rock, LA – cradling grown sons in their arms, like so many Renaissance-era pietà. These are staged images, but their resonance is clear, conveying the care these women have always provided for their families and communities, and juxtaposing it with the harrowing knowledge that they are always just a day away from losing their children to state violence.

Jon Henry Untitled #39, Santa Monica, CA, 2019 digital archival print, 76.2 x 61 cm. Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles
Jon Henry Untitled #39, Santa Monica, CA, 2019, digital archival print, 76.2 x 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles

Similarly, former healthcare worker Nate Lewis’s graphite, ink and inkjet manipulations create materially rich tableaux at once ambiguous but seemingly addressed to recent histories of dissent. In one, a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee is not only toppled but eviscerated (probing the land 8 (robert e lee, after the fire), 2020); in another, a young man appears hunched over, wounded from a lateral strike (signaling 45, 2020). The exhibition concludes with acrylic-on-parachute-canvas banners by Public Assistants, used at demonstrations during the summer of 2020: marches in solidarity with Black womxn, and in the wake of the killing of two Black trans people in the span of 24 hours. Taken together, the images and text here transcend the makeshift, COVID-era quality of so many online viewing rooms and constitute, instead, a slowly unfurling polemic.

Nate Lewis probing the land 8 (robert e lee, after the fire), 2020 hand sculpted inkjet print, ink frottage, and graphite, 109.2 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy the artists and David Kordansky, Los Angeles
Nate Lewis, probing the land 8 (robert e lee, after the fire), 2020, hand sculpted inkjet print, ink frottage, and graphite, 109.2 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles

But, let’s be real: for all of the discursive power of the internet, the real centre of gravity is more terrestrial, in the bricks and mortar of gallery spaces and the booths at art fairs. There has, to be sure, been an uptick of interest by major galleries in work by Black artists in the seven years since the inception of Black Lives Matter. But the same could be said of the 1990s, when theorist Kobena Mercer warned that, even as institutions took on artists whose work made possible a hypervisibility of ‘black’ signifiers that could be commodified, the colonialist hierarchies of the art world would remain. Indeed, while it has been exhilarating to see major exhibitions of late by McArthur Binion, Maren Hassinger, Martin Puryear, Ming Smith and Jack Whitten, these artists had all been working at a level of excellence for decades, and the resulting projects were a comparatively safe bet.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley Terms and Conditions, 2019 polyvinyl construction banner, 174 x 338 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Terms and Conditions, 2019, polyvinyl construction banner, 174 x 338 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky, Los Angeles

Of course, the buying and selling of art is a commercial enterprise. But, if galleries truly seek to be allies and provide platforms for Black artists – to enjoy the present cachet of the decolonial agenda – then there’s much still to be done. Couldn’t blue-chip galleries nurture young artists rather than wait until they reach retirement age? Or funnel profits into financial support for college-age Black students, who remain underrepresented at art schools? Or interrogate the sources of wealth that drive the market? After all, as Hartman herself argues (as have recent works by Achille Mbembe and Christina Sharpe), the very foundations of financial and extractive wealth are predicated on the histories of enslavement that ‘Listening for the Unsaid’ recentres. 

So, while the exhibition itself is programmatically rich and thought-provoking, there is still an uneasy sense of its occupying a more counterpublic space, even as the art world more broadly trips over itself to profess its antiracist affinities. This is by no means a criticism of TRII itself, which is doing crucial intellectual labour and establishing a platform within a system it seeks to critique. Perhaps, ultimately, there can be no reconciliation between capitalism and justice. While Kordansky himself recently reported to The New York Times that shows like this and hiring more people of colour in the gallery is ‘about changing the DNA of my business’, galleries can only have it both ways for so long, and the time for bolder moves is now.

The Racial Imaginary Institute's ‘Listening for the Unsaid’ at David Kordansky, Los Angeles is on view online until 19 December 2020. 

Main image: Public Assistants, 2020, march in New York. Courtesy: the collective and David Kordansky, Los Angeles; photography: Jack Pearce

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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