Aurella Yussuf is a writer, curator and art historian specializing in Africa and the African Diaspora. She is a founding member of Thick/er Black Lines, an interdisciplinary research collective.
Over the past couple of years the art world has seen multiple artists such as Dana Schutz, Kelley Walker, and Luke Willis Thompson (whom you’ve written about here) rightfully come under critique for appropriating images of black bodies and black tragedy. You spefically write, “as always, the issue is never about a single problematic artist, but there is an entire industry and framework allowing an artist’s career to flourish by making exploitative artwork”–while these artists may claim to have had only good intentions, could you speak a bit on what you believe are the larger, structural problems of the art world that are revealed to us by these controversies?
Every time one of these controversies erupts, there is so much hand-wringing, asking questions such as, who allowed this to happen? Why was it greenlit by so many people? And yet it continues to happen repeatedly in new ways, from the crude, explicit nature of Brett Bailey’s work, which sees Black actors shackled in cages, to Luke Willis Thompson’s more abstracted use of Black pain and suffering. The reason why these artists continue to make this work is because there is no-one around them at any point – or at least no-one of any consequence – who lets them know with authority that this is, at best, inappropriate and at worst, highly offensive. This is reinforced by the fact that they make this work repeatedly, and are successful in doing so. They get shows, residencies, they are nominated for and win awards, they sell work, they are critically praised. Why would they even listen? The support for them and their work is overwhelming and is rarely extended to Black artists whether they are making work about the same themes, such as police brutality, or about any other topic. The white voice and white gaze is seen as objective and universal. Overwhelmingly white critics and curators ‘get it’ and as such showcase it, write about it, and perform all of the other supportive functions that allow an artist’s career to flourish. Whereas these same professionals struggle to contextualise Black art regardless of the subject matter. The art world is simply a reflection of wider society, with the same problems that prevent Black people from progressing, while continuing to elevate white mediocrity and appropriation. We see the same thing in film, music, academia and countless other industries.
Perhaps the most obvious resolution to these issues has been a call for the diversification of staff at art institutions on a global scale. Is this alone sufficient to rectify these problems? What else do you believe is necessary to prevent these types of problems from happening again?
Diversification is meaningless without deconstructing and challenging the way that an art institution operates. There have been many Black and non-Black people of colour who have spoken out in favour of some of these controversial artists and artworks. There are people of colour working across the industry – including those in senior positions – who simply fall in line with the existing frameworks and ideologies. Furthermore, even among senior staff you will find more Black people in operational roles rather than in creative, programming or anything to do with making decisions that influence the mission, core values or direction of the institution. Additionally, as long as the economic structure of the art industry remains the same (internships, low pay, slow career progression, a circular recruitment network), any attempts at diversification will be reversed after a few years, with only those who are financially privileged able to sustain themselves under precarious working conditions.
What contemporary art institutions do you believe are leading the way in decolonizing museum and gallery spaces?
First of all, I believe that the idea of decolonizing museum and gallery spaces is a logical fallacy. These art institutions have their origins in the same white supremacist ideologies which set about and categorising the world and the people in it, with white Europeans at the top of the hierarchy. So the entire concept of an institution that categorises work as art/craft/artefact/high-culture/low-culture is in itself a colonial construct. To actually decolonise you would have to radically rethink the entire industry, and essentially society itself. I do however believe that there are individuals and groups working in interesting, meaningful and expansive ways. I see mostly grassroots collectives and organisations who are working in community, in dialogue with the audience, for whom ‘art’ does not exist as a separate entity from life.
The traditional white cube gallery space is critiqued for presenting itself as a tabula rasa-esque objective space, free from any historical or cultural context. In the last few decades artists have been intentionally working outside of these spaces in favor of producing work in public contexts, e.g. social practice/relational aesthetics. Looking back on the past few decades, do you believe this field of work has proven to be more inclusive?
Yes and no. These outside spaces or ways of working may be more accessible and inclusive, but they have not replaced the traditional gallery. There’s a huge imbalance when artists from marginalised groups are overwhelmingly in a position where they have to make work in such way due to a lack of options, while the the mainstream art industry carries on regardless. It’s a problem when marginalised artists are forced to work outside of the white cube space, and therefore not gaining recognition in their career or selling their work, while the standard mode of operation in the industry still continues. It’s just another way to exclude those people while at the same time placating them with talk of democracy and inclusivity. The same goes for internet art. Even those artists who are most famously associated with social practice and relational aesthetics are white men who are able to operate both inside and outside the traditional gallery system and have utilised works in ‘alternative’ public contexts to remain relevant, yet they are able to continue to participate the commercial art market. Marginalised artists are not afforded the same opportunity to move between these worlds, the are always expected to remain on the fringes, doing ‘social’ work. This also relates to my earlier point about diversification of staff in institutions – you’re more likely to find Black staff members and artists in the outreach or education departments than in curatorial roles or being commissioned.
Lastly, you wrote in “White Skin, Black Masks” about the “isolation of aesthetic qualities without having to engage with implications of the reality that created these conditions”. Where modernism seemed to suggest that signifiers could be freely used by artists in any way they choose, the postmodern and contemporary eras have seemed to be more cognizant of the fact that signifiers carry with them their own historical, social, and political connotations. What do you believe are the responsibilities of artists who appropriate signifiers from cultures and histories outside of their own?
What seems to be missed is that focusing purely on aesthetic qualities is not apolitical, because the fact of being apolitical is in itself a political position. I understand the desire for artworks to be read at face value on their material characteristics, especially when the work of Black artists has historically been interpreted through a sociological and ethnographic lens. All aesthetics have an origin, a context and a meaning. So I would urge artists to reflect carefully about their position in relation to the cultural signifiers they want to utilise in your work. Think about your current and historical relationship to those cultures and histories – not just personally but structurally. How much do you really know about the culture that you are engaging with? This goes for all artists, and academics too. Other cultures are not a free-for-all where you simply pick and choose what is your current fascination and drop it when it no longer interests or serves you.