Last week, the 38 mostly black and queer artists in the collective the Yams, including Seattle artist Christa Bell, withdrew their 54-minute operatic video from the Whitney Biennial in protest. They did it to protest another artist's piece and to make an important broader point.
The Yams object to Donelle Woolford, by white male artist Joe Scanlan, a professor at Princeton. For Donelle Woolford, Scanlan hires black female actors to play a fictional artist he created named Donelle Woolford. Scanlan gave her an Ivy League education and poses her as a "hot young artist," as he told BOMB, whose race and privileged background give her a leg up.
Some news stories have highlighted how the black female actors who play Donelle make some independent choices in shaping the character. But they are on Scanlan's payroll. And if they make such independent choices, why don't they share author credit with Scanlan?
"We're sure that we don't need to explain how the notion of a black artist being 'willed into existence' and the use of a black FEMALE body through which a WHITE male 'artist' conceptually masturbates... presents a troubling model," the Yams wrote in their withdrawal letter to the biennial. "The possibility of this figure somehow producing increased 'representation' for black artists both furthers the reduction of black personhood and insults the very notion of representation as a political or collective engagement."
The Yams are not alone. Writers citing Donelle Woolford in the tally of how many women and black artists were included in the biennial drew the ire of Kimberly Drew of the blog Black Contemporary Art. The Studio Museum in Harlem refused to host Donelle.
But Donelle Woolford was the first piece white biennial cocurator Michelle Grabner picked for the American survey. Actually, Scanlan was Grabner's artist of first choice. "Joe was the very first artist I asked to visit... I invited both Joe and Donelle. Joe turned my invitation down, but Donelle agreed to participate," Gallerist reported. Asked "why she felt Ms. Woolford's work seemed important to show," Grabner responded, "Donelle is foremost compelling to me as an invention of Joe Scanlan."
According to the curators' essay, "If there is any central point of cohesion [in the biennial], it may be the slipperiness of authorship that threads through each of our programs."
"The slipperiness of authorship" is a tired idea. But more to the point, authorship is slipperier for some than for others. Plenty of artists hit hard, non-slippery realities in shaping their works and their careers. Donelle is a cover for sidestepping those and entering an imaginary realm where a young black artist with a few advantages usurps attention from people like Joe Scanlan. Perhaps in Donelle are the echoes of a nervously dwindling white American majority.
But wait. This is a white-male-dominated biennial. With the token exception of 1993, that has been true of every Whitney Biennial ever. It's also true of the entire art world, and every other major American institution. The death of white dominance has been greatly exaggerated.
Take the context of Donelle: Donelle "agreed" to participate, Grabner says. But Donelle is of no interest outside of Scanlan, Grabner says.
Donelle is listed on the biennial's artist list, but Scanlan isn't. This isn't slippery authorship, it's Scanlan slipping out of being accountable in the subjects of race and gender. Worse, it's Scanlan—and Grabner and the Whitney—using race and gender to avoid talking about race and gender. And not having to talk about race or gender if you don't want to is privilege in action.
In a long conversation in BOMB about Donelle Woolford, Jeremy Sigler and Joe Scanlan never discuss race or gender. Scanlan prefers to speak in abstract ideas. Unpleasant realities muck up pretty concepts.
"Yeah," Scanlan says, "for some reason the art world still clings to the idea that visual artists have an essential subjective authenticity... that two or three vital statistics will tell us what an artist's work is about. I don't find that to be true or even interesting. And I think artists of all stripes would agree with me."
Artists of all stripes might agree that it should be that way—that art and artists should not be judged according to stray personal facts. But biology and biography are not burdens shared equally by men, women, people of color, and queer people. Kara Walker, for instance, would love to be seen as a specific individual. It has not been an option. In a new BOMB interview, she says her exaggerated silhouettes of horrific scenes of racist history were "fueled by this frustration I felt—that the story of black art and being black always returns to a compromising set of locations and representations; it is always about 'us' and rarely about 'ME.'"
The Yams are forging an alternative "us." They're now seeking better venues to hold screenings of the video. The Whitney tried to deploy them as a "bandaid," they wrote. "However, this is a wound that deeply penetrates the surface of our skin."