Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dear Tokumbo, Aisha, Latasha, Zachary, Simone, Duma, Joel, Shani, Paul, Rebecca, Deana, et al.

This letter is public expression of my sincere gratitude.   

When I began conceptualizing ‘Sit-In’ as a performance action, I was consumed with the imagined beauty of our black and brown faces in the MoMA Flickr grid of ‘The Artist Is Present’.  It was to be a historic archive of our presence, a proud representation of the truth and a beacon to artists of color everywhere; our resolute gazes captured online for everyone to see.  I painstakingly wrote out a plan, one where we absolutely followed the rules, such as they were, and reveled in the normalcy of participation.  We were going to act like every other group of hopefuls looking to engage Marina Abramovic in her historic performance. We were going to venerate the civil rights generation by showcasing the achievability of this action, cheerily denying the prospect of obstacles that might be created as a response to the pigmentation of our skin and culture.  Sure, we tossed around the idea that the white folks might try some funny business, but that was merely residual paranoia from our collective Black consciousness, playfully joshed to the side.  For us, Jim Crow Segregation was less than a memory.   We were born into the retelling of it- crisp paper made soft by repeated handling. 

Only, it’s not a memory, or a story, but an unfortunate experience of the now, re-framed by sophisticated contemporary nuances.

As the mumbled protests of our fellow (white) patrons turned into interrogations (“What time did YOU get here!?!?!”) and shrill confrontations (“I guess I’m too white!”) it became apparent that the normalcy of our intentions could not be contained by the blackness of our bodies.  Singled out repeatedly during the waiting period, the experience was transformed into theater of the absurd as the MoMA staff made it blindingly clear that our presence was being watched and controlled.  When a staff member pointedly asserted that we should step out of line to check our bags I felt my stomach drop.  I had been there twice before as an individual participant and had never heard of this policy, nor had I seen a ticket scanner block the progress of a line (after processing the two white women who were ahead of our group).  A knowing confusion began to take over as we each acknowledged the feelings in our gut and the projected energy that practically hissed “you’re messing things up” and “you shouldn’t be here”.  When the young (white) woman started crying behind me, a security guard gently reassured her that everything would be alright, and that he knew how early she’d been there, blithely ignoring the fact that I’d been there just as long.  Even as I write this, I want to consider the possibility that I am just being petty, but I know that reality of white privilege exists and it thrives on the predictability of our staying in our assigned places.

We never made it to the front of the line, partly because of the logistical unlikelihood, but mostly because of the caustic scrutiny.  Ultimately though, that’s what makes this action such a poignant success. To have your worst suspicions proven so utterly right opens up another dialogue that forces a piercing honestly that is only achieved through real emotion.  After tending to my sadness yesterday, I am presently cooling my anger to a bearable temperature as I contemplate the use of my image in the print version of Jerry Saltz’s article in New York Magazine.  While it’s always clear that ‘The Institution’ is in control, you still hope that the diversity ‘they’ advertise isn’t some performance for the cameras, that it’s not a contrived composite that chuckles audibly at your attempts to match that multicultural ideal in real life. 

In light of various counties repealing Brown vs. Board of Education, Arizona’s Immigration Law, and Texas’ public school curriculum and its mis-handling of American history- it is clear that the pendulum has swung to a space that bolsters the status quo of white supremacy.  If ‘Sit-In’ has revealed anything to me, it’s that a move toward true diversity (gender, race, sexuality, class, age, etc.) is dependent upon the repeated assertion of humanity by people of color and a simultaneous relinquishing of privilege by white people.  As much as this experience can be described through hurt feelings, it’s the inspired dialogues that define it.  If the various conversations I’ve had are any indication, I can’t help but feel hopeful about the possibilities.

Here’s to the discussion.
I just heard that there are no Asian or Latino Artists represented in Greater New York... 
If that's true, then that's some bullshit.


  1. Thank you for your courageous work of carving a space for us in the art world and public spaces in general. The beneficiaries of white supremacy think that we will go away, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are not just guards in the museum, we are members and stake holders!! Let me know how I can help. Socorro

  2. so proud of you kenya.
    liz axtman

  3. Aren't security guards "brown" in their majority? I'm sad and angry again. Have you thought about writing to Marina thru her gallery? 2010 and we are doing baby steps backwards. I hope the anonymous person who doesn't
    "identify as black, african american or negro. so...unfortunately
    your strength in using precise language has segregated me from
    participating in your project-sit in-performance in response to
    marina abramovic's performance project at moma."
    has read this follow up.... Elia Alba

  4. like 2 asians and 2 latinos in greater new york.

  5. Whew! I am glad to know that my information was incorrect. I looked at the listing on Art Fag City and could only identify one Latino artist (for sure), the rest, I simply speculated.

    "Michele Abeles, David Adamo, Ei Arakawa, An Atlas of Radical Cartography, Tauba Auerbach, Darren Bader, Kerstin Brätsch, David Brooks, The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Leidy Churchman, Deville Cohen, Brody Condon, Caleb Considine, William Cordova, Delusional Downtown Divas (Joana Avillez, Lena Dunham, Isabel Halley), DETEXT, Debo Eilers, Franklin Evans, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zipora Fried, Daniel Gordon, Tamar Halpern, K8 Hardy, Tommy Hartung, Sharon Hayes, Vlatka Horvat, Matt Hoyt, Alex Hubbard, Alisha Kerlin, Liz Magic Laser, Deana Lawson, Leigh Ledare, Dani Leventhal, Kalup Linzy, Tala Madani, Nick Mauss, Ryan McNamara, Dave Miko, Amir Mogharabi, Sam Moyer, Nico Muhly, Rashaad Newsome, Dominic Nurre, Brian O’Connell, Alice O’Malley, Virginia Overton, Adam Pendleton, Maria Petschnig, Zak Prekop, Ishmael Randall Weeks, Gilad Ratman, Lucy Raven, Robbinschilds, Mariah Robertson, Adele Röder, Emily Roysdon, Aki Sasamoto, David Benjamin, Sherry Erin Shirreff, Xaviera Simmons, A.L. Steiner, Elisabeth Subrin, Hank Willis Thomas, Naama Tsabar, Guido van der Werve, Conrad Ventur, Amy Yao, Pinar Yolacan."

  6. There are no South Asian artists in GNY.

  7. I saw an East Asian woman when I was there. There is also a woman of African descent who talks about her experiences here
    The thing that struck me as I walked through was how much all of the performers, men and women, people of color few as they were and white people, is how much they all look like Marina A. when she was younger! I actually hoped that this was intentional - to me it was the best case scenario - otherwise, we are left with a bunch of skinny light skinned people who individually I am sure are fabulous artists but who collectively send a very strong and clear message about what kinds of bodies are supposed (and allowed in canonized spaces) to be performance artists.
    I'd be happy to sit in with you again before the show ends!

  8. Thank you for sharing this Kenya. Incredible honesty and courage, will help spread the word.

  9. hey, wrote a piece and mention your piece. kinda meta but...http://tetetotete.tumblr.com/post/1484431179/marina-abramovic-sitting-with-the-insipid-in-the