Justice on View: Struggle, Liberation, and Protest Within the Exhibition Space
An essay for Exhibitions on the Cusp (Tremaine Foundation)
"As museum spaces attempt to reach more black, brown, queer, and youth populations, they must contend with the challenge that museum workers and curators themselves are not always the experts. They must seek out knowledge and learn to be mindful of the nuances that come with displaying struggle and the hardships of people who don’t look like them, and find strategies for shaking off the problematic, Western, white lens through which these histories are often framed. They must ask themselves, “who is this for?” and be willing to confront the honest answer. They must examine whether or not they are willing to disrupt how they operate. And they must start with a sweeping internal overhaul rather than easier, external, outward-facing optics—like exhibition-making.
On the flip side, I also have questions for the justice workers, cultural workers, and artists—myself included—who decide to place themselves and their work in conventional exhibition spaces. Are we seeking the acceptance of the museum and/or the opportunity, resources, and clout that come with placing our work within their contexts? What is lost or gained in that process and how is power negotiated, shared, or demanded by the people who are asked to come in and help them remain relevant? What factors help us to determine which places hold us well and acknowledge our value and worth, and which ones are actually vampiric and should be avoided at all costs? And do we understand exactly what’s at stake when we make moves toward these spaces?
Creating a significant cultural shift in art exhibition and institutional practices, as in justice work, requires endurance. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a lifelong effort and an ongoing conversation. There’s no perfect answer. In fact, the answer might be that it all needs to be completely dismantled—physically and conceptually.
While I stepped into this field because I trust and believe in art’s potential to be a tool for justice and I believe in artists’ ability to be articulators of struggle, restoration, and survival, complementing the work of freedom fighters, the people, and movements, I also recognize and constantly interrogate the limitations of traditional art spaces and their inability to hold and do right by the power, self-definition, and burn-it-all-down radical spirit of the people they’ve largely excluded."
Read the full essay here...
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
 Cauleen Smith, “Conduct your Blooming,” Black Love Procession in Chicago, July 2015. Photo by Kahlil Nommo.
 Heather Smith at Alphawood Gallery during the Protest Banner Lending Library Workshop. Photo courtesy of the Field Foundation.
 Entrance to “Black Radical Women, 1965-85,” California African American Museum, 2017. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.
 “Do Not Resist?” at Hairpin Arts Center, February 2018. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.
 “Our Duty to Fight” at Gallery 400, June 2016. Photo by Tempestt Hazel.