How Whiteness Works: The Racial Imaginary Institute at the Kitchen

Installation view of "On Whiteness" at the Kitchen, New York. Photo Jason Mandella.

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A water cooler filled with milk, a crowd gathered to watch a murder, empty and billowing Klan hoods: these are images that are offered as representations of a scattered racial signifier in “On Whiteness,” an exhibition organized by the Racial Imaginary Institute in collaboration with the curators at the Kitchen, where it is on view through August 3. The Institute is an interdisciplinary collective that formed last year at the initiative of poet Claudia Rankine. Its work posits that whiteness must be made visible before its power can be destabilized. Judging by the exhibition, which takes this position as its premise, the Institute seems to be more interested in describing how whiteness works than understanding how it might be made to work no longer. The Institute has characterized their ongoing projects centered on whiteness—including “The Whiteness Issue,” a collection of essays and images launched on their website in September 2017 and a film series presented at BAMcinematek this month and also titled “On Whiteness”—as the first steps to “move forward into more revelatory conversations about race” (per the introduction to “The Whiteness Issue”). Even before entering the Kitchen, I suspected that the show would leave me impatient for that persistently delayed revelation.

The artists, activists, scholars, and writers who make up the Institute mostly work within the other, more rigid institutions of knowledge and culture that they critique. Immersed in these spheres of white influence, those involved have chosen a form for their work—the institute—that conjures the white attachment to civility and discretion. While the curatorial statement mentions the ability of institutions to “shape social meaning,” the show itself shows the limits of such re-shaping when done within the given forms of the white world. A desire to get outside the gallery room is however immediately apparent in Colonial White (2018), a project set up in the lobby by Charlotte Lagarde (who is white) encouraging people to take a paint chip, identified by the manufacturer as “Colonial White,” out into the larger world and take a picture with the chip held next to an object or image that manifests its name. The photos sent to Lagarde feature the US Capitol, a grocery shelf with bags of Domino sugar, and a copy of the Bible. The presentation echoes Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Card) #1 (1986–91), included in her retrospective now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, actual calling cards that she distributed to acquaintances who made, agreed with, or laughed at a racist remark in her presence, perhaps not realizing Piper was a black woman. Whereas Piper identified herself as black with the text on the cards, Colonial White collects objects and environments that may seem innocuous to some (but rather obviously pernicious to me), linking the construction of racial categories on the basis of color to colonial history. The gray lobby also holds shelves of books (without offering a place to sit and peruse them), most of which belong to the field of academic social science, such as Joel Kovel’s study White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970). Layli Long Soldier’s book of poetry Whereas (2017) is an outlier here, a work that unravels and interrupts the colonial language of US government treaties with and apologies to Native tribal nations. I was struck trying to determine the logic that would juxtapose a book like Kovel’s with Long Soldier’s as the former speaks of and to whiteness within the scientific terms created by whiteness itself, and the latter deconstructs the terms invented to justify dispossession as a white right. Between the two lies a spectrum of ways in which a racial imaginary might interpret and/or undo the words that work for whiteness.

Concerns on the level of language followed me into the elevator up to the gallery on the second floor, but when the doors opened, I stepped out into more immediate sensations. The room was dark but for the light of Baseera Khan’s installation [Feat.    ] with lowered ceiling (2018), refracted through a golden lattice reminiscent of traditional Islamic ornament. On a huge screen in the main gallery plays There Is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not (2018) by Native Art Department International, a video that enigmatically evokes the slips between colonial time and being. Dennis Redmoon Darkeem, an artist and member of the Yamassee Yat’siminoli tribe, dances in his powwow regalia and, in large blocks of text that interrupt the footage, comments on his frustrations with being obscured as a black Indigenous man under the current racial and visual regime. The video’s central position in the exhibition was fitting: here in the entanglements of black and Indigenous identities lies the narrative of modernity in the Americas, the creation of categories by a supposedly transparent and self-determining group of European subjects. The repeated encounters of dark-skinned peoples under force of death and dispossession, the debates over the souls of indios versus negros, the seafaring signifier of “savage” that traveled from Africa to the Americas: these are some parts of the story of whiteness, which is itself only ever a part. With the dark-skinned other as its foundation, the blank room of whiteness is a structure that can never stand on its own. In one of the video’s intertitles, Darkeem asks: “without that white narrative, what does ‘other’ mean?” This is the racial imaginary that whiteness studies cannot reach. I ask after Darkeem: if the alternative ways of understanding history and the globe put forth in black and Indigenous studies were given due attention, why would there be a need for whiteness studies?

Sara Ahmed’s 2007 essay “A Phenomenology of Whiteness” is described in a curatorial statement as a “foundational text for the project.” Like a philosophical liturgy, her ideas, images, and words appear throughout the show. In the essay, she helpfully names an unshakeable anxiety at the crux of whiteness studies: that focus on the fantasy of the white race only strengthens the bind of a noxious attachment. It is an anxiety I recognized while viewing Mores McWreath’s Spots (2016-18), a series of videos set in thermoplastic molds shaped like corpuscular screens from a David Cronenberg set, shapes reflected in the gobs of a clay-like mask that obscures McWreath’s features in one sequence. The white artist repeats banal recitations we recognize as the willfully naive yet self-righteous moves to innocence: “I am one of the good white people.” In a different, more cutting moment, McWreath asks: “Are you and your world the same shape?” It echoes Ahmed’s claim that institutions take on the shape of what sits in them. His ability to be the wry but beleaguered expert of his own power speaks to the resilience of institutional shapes and the critiques permitted to fit within them.

The most stirring moments of “On Whiteness” come in encounters with works that appeal to embodied sensation, like Khan’s glittering installation, and Titus Kaphar’s sculpture A Pillow for Fragile Fictions (2016), a corked blown-glass bottle with a concoction of rum, tamarind, and molasses inside. These are among the flashes of a more daring imagination, lines of sight to the space-time where we can collectively read out the James Baldwin declaration that appears in Glenn Ligon’s untitled 2016 painting: “The world is no longer white and it will never be white again.”