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Talk – Taking Up Space: Women Only Shows with the East London Fawcett Group

30 September 201419.00—21.00

Contemporary Art Society
59 Central Street
London EC1V 3AF

Free and open to all

The East London Fawcett Group’s latest audit found that though women make up 60% of art graduates they only account for 31% of gallery represented artists. With this in mind what are the cultural benefits of women only shows and alternative type of affirmative action? How does this type of approach impact artists? Do they affect them positively or negatively? Are potential fears of a backlash justified? Or would affirmative action in fact solve many of the current discriminatory practices in the art world? This panel will debate these questions, bringing together the voices of artists, curators and critics and opening up a space for a dialogical rather than conclusive exchange.

Speakers include: Iwona Blazwick – Director, The Whitechapel Gallery; Sonia Boyce – Artist;Caroline Douglas – Director, Contemporary Art Society; Ann Gallagher – Curator and Head of Collections, Tate; Professor Hilary Robinson – Dean of Art and Design, Middlesex University and author of Feminist-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000Vanessa Jackson – Artist, former head of The Royal Academy Schools; Elizabeth Neilson – Director of The Zabludowicz Collection and Jennifer Thatcher – Art Critic.

Curated and chaired by artist and activist, Rose Gibbs, on behalf of the East London Fawcett Group.

The East London Fawcett Group is a voluntary, self-organizing group that seeks to promote gender equality. For more on its art program please visit the website, and for its other campaigns please see

This event is free and open to all but space is limited. To attend please RSVP to

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown What Picture Would They Use’ Sparks A Vulnerable & Potent Discussion On Black Image Portrayal In The Media


Social media has once again proven that when focused, our generation can pull together and launch an unofficial campaign that not only spreads awareness, but paints a picture strong enough to change the dialogue around the representation of Black people in the media–especially as it’s related to the trend of police brutality.

Michael Brown’s shooting not only sparked major outage from the sheer fact of him being gunned down by the police while unarmed, his story was also chopped and screwed by the media, who chose to paint Brown as a dangerous “gang-banging” teen, who perhaps deserved to die because he was a big Black “threat” to police.

The initial image released of Brown after his untimely death was of him in his cap and gown, but since the story picked up steam, media organizations and conservative bloggers are increasingly turning to a photo of Brown clad in a Nike Air jersey and throwing a “gang sign.”

Immediately, images of Trayvon Martin throwing up gang signs, showing off gold grills and smoking weed flooded my mind. The world was ready to see Martin as a dangerous hoodlum who may have deserved his fate. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is not only a sad commentary on what it means to be Black in America, but also shows that in order to have our own stories correctly reported, we have to do the reporting ourselves. Check out this amazing Op-Ed from our Senior Editor, Nakisha Williams that explores what it means for Black people to be portrayed negatively in the media.

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Sir James Dyson: ‘It’s sexist to say that women and girls don’t ‘do’ engineering’

Britain is facing an enginering crisis and women - who make up just 8.5 per cent of the workforce - are central to that. Sir James Dyson says it’s critical that we show girls the excitement of a career in STEM from a young age (not just PVA glue and wood)

The future's so bright: from left; Morwenna Cory, Casey Brill, Sky Dennis, Chloe Yip, Samara Villion, Yemisi Osunsami and Sarah Purdy at the RIGB's L'Oreal Young Scientist Centre
We need to encourage more schoolgirls to get excited by engineering and science Photo: PAUL GROVER

Britain is gripped by an engineering skills crisis. In order to plug the yawning gap, we need to double the number of engineering graduates coming out of our universities each year, for the next twenty years. If we don’t? Our high-technology companies will be out-invented by the international competition. Our exports will virtually disappear and our wealth will plummet. We will have lost forever the ability to engineer and make things. It’s a problem that we can’t ignore, but we can’t begin to solve it if we discount half the population based on myth. It is simply not true that women don’t ‘do’ engineering.

Earlier this month Dr Gijsbert Stoet, from the University of Glasgow,claimed that women were biologically disinterested in science: science for the boys, arts for the girls. His view is that men enjoy “things”; while women’s strengths lie in “people”.

I’m sceptical of sweeping generalisations like this. Just as I know plenty of men who can multi-task, I employ scores of female engineers who can invent. Dr Stoet’s declaration is sexist and reinforces the gender stereotype. Women are not wired to dislike engineering.

Engineering has a ‘woman problem’

That stereotype is fuelled by a world obsessed with image, fame, endless celebrity magazines and reality TV shows. We are told that 32 per cent of teenage girls want to be models. Even more want to be ‘famous’. Just 8.5 per cent of the engineers in the UK are women.Research by Girlguiding UK has shown that 62 per cent of 11-21 year-old girls believe STEM is just for boys.

And yet, appearances can be deceiving. More people visit museums than watch football matches. We have an unfashionable latent curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Perhaps we want to be challenged and stimulated.

That’s why scientist Brian Cox’s popular radio series The Infinite Monkey Cageis so popular. He has done much to make science accessible (and has plenty of female admirers). While Countdown’s Rachel Reilly has made working with numbers more attractive. But they’re still heavily outweighed by pop singers, musicians and reality TV stars. Apparently engineering doesn’t have the ‘X Factor’.

Personally, I’m less interested in X-factor than X-projects. Dyson spends over £3m a week on research and development. It’s high tech and exciting, with not a dirty overall in sight. Perhaps that’s why our labs have more female engineers than ever - more than three times the national average. And we want more.

Women graduate engineers at Dyson

The reality of a career in engineering couldn’t be more different to the stereotype. Modern engineering blends creativity, ingenuity and science to solve problems – and create patentable, exportable goods. Not just headline grabbing technologies, but hospital equipment which saves lives, tools which make life easier for those in the developing world and the everyday technologies we take for granted but which keep society moving. It’s exciting to be on the edge of a discovery and iteratively developing it towards commercialisation. There are few professions where your ideas can have such vast impact - and there’s no shortage of problems to be solved.

Ignoring the bleak numbers for a moment, it’s surely obvious that we must do more to attract women into engineering. Female insights are critical to the design process – all sorts of unintended consequences emerge if it is left just to men.The all-male engineering team behind the humble airbag managed to overlook women altogether during development. The results were potentially disastrous. Whereas an airbag might hit a man in the chest, early versions hit a women or a child straight in the chin – they just hadn’t taken into account the smaller dimensions.

It’s a clear reminder that when male and female design engineers work together, the result is usually a superior product.

To encourage girls to get inventing, we need to do more reveal a true picture of engineering at a young age. Between the ages of seven and nine, children develop the key critical reasoning skills essential to engineering. It is during this time that they should be inspired and exposed to hands on making and doing, at school and home. Less Barbie, more building – and an inspiring, modern curriculum to match. As they progress through their education, we need to retain their interest and give them a glimpse into the varied, exciting and challenging life of an engineer.

Design and Technology is the only subject that combines science and math in a practical format and gives students an early insight into engineering. But teaching needs to move away from wooden blocks and PVA glue toward a curriculum that focuses on the latest industry techniques - alongside plenty of sketching, prototyping and creativity. It’s how engineers work in the real world, so teaching must reflect this.

Sir James Dyson

It’s a formula that works. The James Dyson Foundation has teamed-up with the Department for Education on a new curriculum. But it is also, separately, trialling a project with five schools in Bath. Each is provided with a suite of high technology equipment and five hands-on curriculums to work with. Students can sketch out ideas, jump on to a computer and moments later watch a 3D printer create their prototype. Scanners and laser cutters let them engineer individual parts that they can test, change and test again. Last term the students were designing self-propelled vehicles without using fossil fuels. They have tackled design briefs on delivering aid after natural disasters and making life easier for an ageing population.

We’ve seen a 200 per cent uptake in design and technology across these five schools. The pupils suddenly want to be engineers. Interestingly, gender seems irrelevant - this kind of curriculum is exciting whether you’re male or female and, ideally, we won’t have to differentiate in the future.

Hayesfield Girls’ School even had to add an additional GCSE Design and Technology class to the timetable, such was the enthusiasm. A new generation of female inventors is in development.

The results of our prototype curriculum in Bath give me hope. I can only hope that Dr Stoet will revise his view and perhaps visit the schools to see for himself. Given the right opportunities, young women (and men) make career choices based not on their gender, but on an inherent interest and passion.

History has shown time and again that our ingenuity through science and engineering solves problems. Why would young women not want to lead and take part in that exciting adventure?

The latest show at the Saatchi Gallery has no female artists in its 15 person line up. Coco Mellor commented :
"Yes, very disappointed by the show yesterday. Felt as though they were saying we can only create a platform for one marginalised group at a time, so if the exhibition features mostly black and Latin male artists it precludes the need for female perspectives because the "minority" quotient is already is covered. Asinine."


The latest show at the Saatchi Gallery has no female artists in its 15 person line up. Coco Mellor commented :

"Yes, very disappointed by the show yesterday. Felt as though they were saying we can only create a platform for one marginalised group at a time, so if the exhibition features mostly black and Latin male artists it precludes the need for female perspectives because the "minority" quotient is already is covered. Asinine."

Not Your Toy: Stop It With The Music Industry Misogyny, Already

Uh. Just uh…

You’d have thought, by now, really, that it didn’t matter what tackle you were or weren’t born with – if you’re feeling it, you can rock as hard as anyone, cock out or never there in the first place. Boy or girl, however you define yourself: it should be no obstacle to playing music to people, to enjoying music with people, to forging a career in this industry of ours.

And yet, there is merchandise like this on sale, by the (deathcore) bands Attila and I Declare War, which rather suggests: women, you’re not welcome (via Sexism And The Second City).

Those shirts mightn’t be fresh to each act’s store, and perhaps they regret them. (That doesn’t exonerate them from being beyond heinous, mind.) But the advert below from sE Electronics, as seen in Sound On Sound magazine earlier this month (July 2014), stirred Hookworms (whose MJ put the image on their Facebook page) into posting a passionate message:

“This is really important – companies need to be challenged on their sexism. The image in this advert of a woman without a head propagates the position of the female as an object in a man’s world to be written on and used to sell a product (a microphone?!).

“I (MJ) am lucky enough to make my living from recording and I want women and girls to also feel comfortable in what is currently a highly male-dominated industry. Images like this advert show we still have a long way to go.”

“A long way to go.” How very depressing. sE countered the various messages of displeasure they inevitably received with a little background on the offending advert for their Magneto microphone, as well as something a bit like an apology, sort of just another advert, but more further fuel for the fire. James Young, MD of sE, wrote: “We believed that by creating a piece of art, we were doing something different, something beautiful, that empowered woman and celebrated the beauty of the female form.”

The “art” that Young refers to, presumably, is the CGI that the image is made of. That’s not a real woman, see. If it was, just imagine! How very sexist that would be. It’s a 3D model – not a de-robed lady with Photoshop tats. Which, obviously, makes it okay. Hmm.

Most people did not agree.And some wrote even more words on the topic, like here and here. I popped the ad onto my Facebook wall to see if any of my friends agreed that it was, indeed, an “empowering” image. Said one comment, from someone born without a penis:

“It’s just exploiting the female form and ideals of feminine beauty to sell a microphone. They think they are being clever by trying to appeal to the alternative subculture by having the woman tattooed… but actually it’s blatant exploitation. This kind of stuff just pisses me off.”

Nutshell, pretty much. Others remarked on its exploitative nature, and how it’s just “low standards ad”. “How is it anything other than an arse to get people to look at the ad?” asked one friend who works in PR for major-label, A-listed artists. I find it hard to believe, after the widely publicized article penned last year by Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry – “Is the casual objectification of women so commonplace that we should all just suck it up, roll over and accept defeat? I hope not…” – and leading female artists like London Grammar’s Hannah ReidGrimes andJanelle Monáe speaking out about how they’ve each experienced sexism in their workplace, this industry of ours, that we are still finding fresh examples of discrimination where there’s no legitimate reason for there to be any – like there ever could be.

Of course, it’s one thing to be a brand selling microphones for the professional musician community, quite another for a musician themselves to promote the idea that women should be perceived as inferior, secondary, as nothing more than window dressing for the product that is their uniquely crafted brand of contemporary pop music.  

Then again, there was this.

In the March issue of HungerJake Bugg (the happy-go-lucky, chipper chap that he so effortlessly implies he is in every photo shoot he’s a part of) participated in a session with renowned snapper Rankin. The concept? Well, you can see for yourself. This shit is so next-level I can’t even begin to process it, it’s that far beyond me. I mean, on the surface, it looks like the team’s just gone, “Boob, yep, boobs… boobs,” and maybe mumbled something about Robert Palmer. But, surely, there is a greater meaning to it. Surely?

In the Hunger interview, beside the typos, Bugg is asked if the shoot was his idea. “Yeah, I’ve been listening to a bit of (Jimi) Hendrix, and it’s a reference to the ‘Electric Ladyland’ cover.” Now, I’m very aware that Bugg’s music is archaic in the extreme, and that in the 1960s, when ‘Electric Ladyland’ was released (in 1968), some guys had problems with women enjoying every right that they did themselves. The Women’s Liberation Movement had taken tremendous strides towards equality – feminism was taking root, and today it’s rightly embedded in a great many individual ideologies. But just because his music’s old, his snickering sexism could do with a boot into the present day.

And besides, Hendrix didn’t even like the ‘Electric Ladyland’ cover. He expressed great embarrassment about it. He found it disrespectful. Guess Bugg missed that part of the album’s story. And even if he didn’t have creative control on the Hunger shoot, which I have been told by other press types, surely he could have said something? Is he that much of a braindead puppet for people who we don’t see fronting these godawful songs? Almost makes you feel sorry for him. Nah.

What was amazing, to me, was that the Hunger shoot passed me (and others) by entirely at the time. It was not until just a few weeks ago that it appeared on my radar, shared by peers on social media. I tweeted about it, that was picked up byDorian Lynskey and soon enough many more journalists were expressing no little justified outrage about the whole thing.

Why bring this up now, at all, though, given the internet moves so fast that even images shared and collectively abhorred just a few weeks ago feel terrifically old? Mainly because I read this over the weekend just gone, and it turned my stomach. Writing for The Daily Dot, Samantha Allen mentioned the recent VidCon event, held for those who create YouTube content, both for a living and just for fun. She says that many female creators post one video and then never return as they are appalled, and understandably turned off, by the comments they see under their work.

This is nothing new. Look at this two-year-old post by Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian revealing the awful harassment she endured for daring to be a girl who had an opinion on videogames. “She needs a good dicking.” “LESBIANS: THE GAME is all this bitch wants.” “Back to the kitchen, c*nt.” Can you begin to imagine being called a c*nt for doing your work? And as Allen illustrates, this kind of cancerous hate persists into the present – it is no easier for women now. And this isn’t “just the internet”, is it? “Just the internet” implies that what you’re looking at right now is some sort of niche attraction in everyone’s everyday lives.

This internet being what 36 million Brits alone access every single day. That figure representing over half of the UK’s total population. Small, this internet. Tiny. Never going to take off.

I actually thought that the music industry was a better place for women than the games industry, or that which has established itself around free-publishing platforms like YouTube. I thought its longer history, its right now richer culture in the perceptions of a mainstream that sees games as the preserve of the geek, would separate it from newer forms of expression. Totally wrong, of course, as sE and Jake Bugg make wholly evident. And when Mayberry is reading comments about herself like, “I have your address and I will come round to your house and give u anal and you will love it you tw*t lol”, what kind of levelheaded, professional response can anyone have?

You are an artist and you make music and some people love it and others don’t (apply to other media as it fits): that’s the system as it’s pretty much always been. Any musician is okay with reading that someone on the internet isn’t enamored with their latest single. But to read that someone will come to your house to rape you?

sE Electronics have called their advert art. All it does, though, just like Bugg’s ill-advised Hunger shoot, is tell the prick minority out there that it’s just fine to treat women – and I don’t care if they’re flesh and bone or dreamed up in a computer, the effect is the same – like hunks of meat to slaver and drool over. Some weirdoes might even want to stick their dicks in meat. I doubt they’d put that on the internet, though. (Please, please, do not link me to anything that says I’m wrong about that.)

Sexism in the music industry goes deeper than a printed page and a few breasts in a shoot. It’s just that the further into the minefield you go, so the less visible these factors are to the public. I could write here about the males at the top of radio stations worldwide, or how so few music magazines and websites have female editors. But we would be here all dayLily Allen talks a lot of shit, usually solely to get a reaction, but when she bemoans the shortage of female executives at record labels, she makes a pertinent point: a lot of the attitude expressed by those working at the bottom of the pyramid could be affected by different decisions taken at the top.

I’m sure there will be a more even spread of top-level music industry players in the near future, between male and female executives and the like. There has to be, or we’re failing to progress an industry based on evolution, on the thrill to be found in the new. In the meantime, we can all benefit – artists and promoters, journalists and managers, fans and funders – from highlighting the completely needless sexist shitwhen we see it. Follow Hookworms’ example here with sE – let’s not ever confuse art with exploitation, creativity with misogyny. Call that shit out. I’ve spent the last decade and more seeing great female professionals in the music industry, people in PR and this side of the press, artist management and radio, rise up the ranks – not to the very top, yet, but knocking on the door. And should anyone, decaying old dinosaurs and barely-shaving commenters alike, stand in the way of the brightest and best, because of gender?

Well, perhaps I’ll show up at their house. With a copy of The Bell Jar and some canned ham, just in case.

- - -

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Japan ‘Vagina Artist’ Arrest Sparks Debate

This handout picture taken by Rokudenashiko and Marie Akatani on 19 October 2013 shows artist Megumi Igarashi paddling a kayak designed to be the shape of her own vagina in Tokyo.

The arrest on obscenity allegations of a woman who makes art based on her vagina has sparked debate in Japan.

Tokyo-based artist Megumi Igarashi, 42, was arrested on Saturday for sending data that could be used to create 3D models of her vagina.

She had sent it to people who had donated money for a project to make a vagina-shaped kayak using a 3D printer.

The arrest made headlines in national media and triggered discussion on Japan’s obscenity laws.

Ms Igarashi also goes by the moniker Rokudenashiko, which means “no-good girl” in Japanese.

A police spokesman told AFP news agency she had distributed data that could “create an obscene shape”.

On her website, Ms Igarashi says she has made several pieces of art based on her genitals using a silicone mould, saying she wants to make vaginas “more casual and pop”.

The vagina “has been such a taboo in Japanese society… (it) has been thought to be obscene”, while penises are regarded as “part of pop culture”, she said.


Mariko Oi, BBC News

Rokudenashiko, or Megumi Igarashi, was not a household name in Japan but her arrest has certainly made her one.

Major media outlets reported on her arrest and social media platforms like Twitter have since been flooded with comments.

Opinion is split but one debate is about whether the scanned 3D data can be categorised as obscene unless the recipients have printed it out.

Others have questioned why the image of a vagina is seen as obscene when images of penises are not seen as causing offence.

There are, for example, annual festivals in Japan where a huge wooden phallus is carried from a shrine or visitors can enjoy sweets shaped like penises.

Local media are also being criticised for labelling Ms Igarashi a “self-proclaimed” artist, with some suggesting that police and the media are trying to discredit her.

People on Twitter are contrasting their coverage with Western media, which has treated her as an artist.


According to Japan’s Asahi newspaper, Ms Igarashi told police she rejected the charges.

"I cannot agree with the police’s decision to label the data as obscene," she reportedly said. "To me, my vagina is like my arms and legs. It’s nothing obscene."

Japan’s obscenity laws ban the depiction of genitalia, which are blurred in broadcast media and images.

Ms Igarashi’s arrest comes a month after legislators voted to ban the possession of child pornography.

Japan was previously the only country in the 34-strong Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) without such a prohibition.

However the law does not apply to animation, known as anime, or comic art, known as manga.

Intensive Care/Hot New Track

**please watch with headphones**

"In the universal rape fantasy she paints her nails red white and blue
And says oh, honey, once is never
Then her head sprouts 100 new heads
Or was it just a dream
They attach electrodes and with terrible intimacy
Extract from you a legally meaningless shock confession
That what happens once can be repeated
The work of love in the age of its technological reproduction”

From the show Intensive Care at Legion TV Sept-Oct 2013

GIRL SUMMIT 2014 - Find out more about how you can get involved here:

GIRL SUMMIT 2014 - Find out more about how you can get involved here:


Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit

Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” features a 75’ long x 35’ wide mammy sphinx that is coated with bleached sugar. The sphinx is part of an exhibit at the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo:

“You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique,” I yelled. The visitors lowered their cameras. Just seconds ago, they had been aiming their lenses at the sculpture of a 40-foot tall, nude black female sphinx. Many posed under its ass; some laughed and pointed at its vulva. As I watched their joking, my thoughts spun and I walked into the crowd, turned to face them and began yelling.

It wasn’t my rage, it was our rage. Since May, gentrified Brooklyn buzzed with talk of the newKara Walker exhibit, a giant sculpture of a Mammy sphinx at the derelict Domino Sugar Factory. On the Internet, one could see it was the size of a house, with full African lips and a flat nose, a doo-rag knotted on its forehead. Officially titled “a Subtlety,” it received glowing reviews on NPR’s All Things Considered and the New York Times. I was curious but also felt a low alarm going off in the back of my head. In early June, I went to the exhibit. The anxiety increased when I saw the factory — in line, nearly everyone was white. The alarm rang louder.

'Through the Eyes of Others'

The “alarm” is a reflex most minorities have, it’s a rising anxiety that signals you are surrounded by people too privileged to know they’re hurting you. Or who would not care if they did. It can beep quietly. Or blare like a foghorn. The alarm is part of the psychological package that W.E.B. Du Bois described in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk as, “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

As the long line moved under the bright sun, I feared the mostly white visitors would not see me or the violent history the art reflected. Staffers ofCreative Time, the non-profit that commissioned the exhibit, were giving visitors release forms. We signed and walked through the gate. On the side of the building was the work’s full title, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” Okay, I thought, at least a sign is up. And with the news videos, the reviews and the Creative Time webpage maybe visitors won’t be carried away by a naked black female sculpture and actually see the painful history it represented.  

Inside the factory, cool, sweet air filled my nose. It was a rusted cathedral of industry, held up by blistered girders. Across the warehouse I saw the white Mammy sphinx. Visitors bunched around caramel-like statues of children holding baskets. They were antebellum figurines of slave boys, made of resin coated in molasses. The irony of them molded into sugar was of course symbolic of the money and power distilled from their bodies. Viewers seemed to get it. Maybe, I thought, it was safe to turn off the alarm? And then I saw a balding white father, posing with his son next to one of the boy statues, his arms folded across his chest “gangsta” style as the mother took a photo.

Black Pain, White Laughter

Anger shot up my body like a hot thermometer. Face flushed, I walked to the Mammy sphinx. Couples posed in front of it, smiling as others took their photos. So here it was, an artwork about how Black people’s pain was transformed into money was a tourist attraction for them. A few weeks ago, I had gone to the 9/11 museum and no one, absolutely no one, posed for smiling pictures in front of the wreckage.

I caught the eye of the few people of color, we talked and shook our heads at the jokey antics of white visitors. We felt invisible, and our history was too. It stung us and we wanted to leave. I forced myself to go the backside of the statue and saw there what I expected to see, white visitors making obscene poses in front of the ass and vulva of the “Subtlety.” A heavy sigh fell out me. “Don’t they see that this is about rape?” I muttered as another visitor stuck out his tongue. 

What is the responsibility of the artist? Is it different for a Black artist who creates in the midst of political struggle? I first saw Walker’s work more than a decade ago in Boston and remembered studying her panorama of black silhouettes. Violent sex, violent lashings, prancing slave owners and mutilated black bodies wrapped the room. The spark of her art came from taking the form of 19th century visual vocabulary, quaint history book illustration, and using it to represent the actual brutality occurring at the time. Standing there, I admired her technical ability and also, her vision, to force us to read the suppression of real violence under an epoch’s ideology. And yet, I wondered even then, if exposing the details of Black victimization was truly freeing if it simply triggered the pain of people of color, and in the precarious atmosphere of the nearly all-white art world at that.

Now, more than a decade later, I was going for a second visit to see “A Subtlety.” I brought my friend Nia. “Brace yourself,” I told her. Sure enough, she saw what I had seen. Of course we both marveled at the immensity of the Mammy sphinx. Just the sheer size of it pushed us back on our heels. The physical weight of all that sugar, a symbol of the pain and profit wrung from our ancestors, our black bodies, fell on us hard. All those lives destroyed, I thought, all that death. And then a white couple goofily posed in front of the Mammy sphinx’s breasts. Nia and I left.

We Are Here

On my last trip there I was with a group of friends. Again we stood under a bright sun in a long line. Again Creative Time staff handed out release forms. But now a new team was there, people of color, working with the We Are Here project. They gave us stickers reading “We Are Here,” to remind white visitors that the descendants of slaves were in the room, present and watching the whites pose in front of their history like tourists.

I wasn’t a part of the group officially, but I was part of the collective mind. Again we entered the factory, again the sickly sweet cool air swept over us. My friend, a dancer, looked at the molasses-covered slave boys holding their heavy baskets and remarked on how it injured their backs to carry that kind of weight. Again, we were seeing the sculptures from an historical vision, one that our lives are rooted in. She pointed to an older white woman photographing her daughter smiling next to a slave boy. We were both getting angry. Others in the group were too.

A few of us went to the backside of the Mammy sphinx. A crowd milled around and lights flashed from their cameras. I was late for a meeting and going to leave when a white man kneeled and aimed his camera at his Asian-American friend, who made a goofy face under the giant buttocks. Something snapped. I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.

A Stunned Silence

A stunned silence paralyzed the crowd until I walked back, and then loud talk rose like a tornado. One of the Creative Time curators came up to me and said if I was going to make statements to let people know I wasn’t part of their organization. A friend cut in, saying loudly that I didn’t have to say shit. They got into a debate that heated up into a verbal fight. Visitors came up to me, some saying I was wrong; others saying I was right.

It was like a sleeping beehive had been kicked over. Security was called and it got tense. I missed most of what happened because people were in my face. By the time I left, one friend was in tears and the curator was very nearly there too, clutching her writing pad like a shield. Rage sizzled the air.

It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors. But why did we have to? Why did the organizers of We Are Here even have to do that work? Wasn’t the job of Walker or at least of Creative Time’s staff to curate a racially charged artwork? Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. Yes, Creative Time has the freedom to organize it. But what do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space?

People are going to bring prejudices and racial entitlement into the space. Duh. Instead of challenging the racial power dynamics of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time, in their naivety or arrogance, I don’t know which, simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe place for it. Thanks for nothing, Ms. Walker!

Days later, the We Are Here protest and my angry talk-back made a few articles, but the sad thing is that thousands of visitors are still seeing a sculpture that symbolizes the history of racial violence with no guidelines on how to interpret it. Among them are visitors of color, wanting to see this exhibit, who will face visitors mocking their history. Just the other day, a friend of mine saw it and texted me, “When I went, 2 white men stood arm and arm smiling for a “fb pic” with her backside in the background. I wanted to cry, scream and break their faces. It made me so sick.”

If visitors have the freedom to express their contempt for our history, we have the freedom to protest them. When we do, we let everyone know that unlike the mute Mammy sphinx, we can speak for ourselves.

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