'Museums Are Not Inherently Any Way': MTL Collective On Decolonize This Place and Reimagining Museums 

In Depth

In December, protestors entered New York’s Whitney Museum, bearing signs and banners reading, “WHITNEY MUSEUM: A SPACE FOR PROFITEERS OF STATE VIOLENCE” and “WE DIDN’T CROSS THE BORDER, THE BORDER CROSSED US!” They filled the lobby of the museum with smoke from burned sage in protest of Warren Kanders, a member of the Whitney’s board.

Kanders owns the company Safariland, which manufactures a disturbingly wide variety of guns, riot gear, and intense military accessories and weaponry. Safariland also owns Defense Technology, the company which is directly responsible for the tear gas used on migrant families at the U.S. Border. As the Miami New-Times reported last year, Safariland’s tear gas was used not just at the border but also at the protests in Ferguson in 2015 and at protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The tear-gassing of children and refugees is not what most people would probably associate with the Whitney, which would probably prefer that visitors focus on the Warhols currently lining their walls. But Decolonize This Place, the group responsible for leading the protest at the Whitney, are making it their mission to organize against the museum over Kanders’s position on the board. Earlier this week the list of artists showing in this year’s Whitney Biennial were announced and artist Michael Rakowitz withdrew his name from the list in protest of Kanders.

There are men like Kanders on boards across New York City’s art institutions and museums around the country. And what Decolonize This Place’s mission entails is an ongoing fight for decolonization in these museums which often preach diversity and radical politics in exhibition copy but gentrify the neighborhoods they operate in, abuse the rights of workers paid to construct their museums, and fail to engage with their own colonialist history. It’s an ethos the movement, which mobilizes different groups across the city engaging with issues of artwashing and gentrification, have demonstrated in protests across museums, from calling out the hiring of white curators in African art to exhibiting stolen objects.

Decolonize This Place uses the museum as a sort of physical landing place to tease out and explore visions of how decolonization can be exercised. Jezebel spoke with MTL collective members Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain, both of whom help facilitate Decolonize This Place.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: I was reading an interview with you both where you had said that you two see art institutions and spaces as “some of the few places left for you to resist and build on the path to decolonial freedom.” Why would you say that art spaces and these institutions are one of the few places left for you to do that kind of work?

Nitasha Dhillon: Personally just from experience, I’m currently doing a Ph.D. in Media Studies and Amin also teaches as an adjunct. We’re both part of the university system and we started out as artists. I think it’s because for the work of decolonization, space, land, water, air—all of these things are extremely central, so actually having physical space changes everything. Historically, art institutions have opened up as spaces of refuge. Most of the time art institutions do claim to be political, specifically with the art that they curate, and of course, there have been historical inequalities as well; we know that from how institutions are structured, who governs them, who considers what is art, who curates art. It’s one of the places that we can think about decolonization. Not that decolonization can be obtained, it’s an ongoing process, but at least it’s a space where we can have a conversation.

So many art museums sort of present themselves as inherently progressive institutions, or they put on an art exhibit of people of color but then when you look behind the scenes the curatorial teams can be entirely white. Which I know is something that Decolonize protested when the Brooklyn Museum concerning the white curator of African art that was hired. Do you think that that sort of progressive sheen that museums sort of have, or at least publicize to the public, helps your organizing efforts?

ND: The one thing about art institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, quite often what they’re trying to do is to look at what is happening in terms of social movements and think of the art to include that way. For example, when Occupy Wall Street was happening, you had a lot of shows happening after that were about capitalism. I also come from art which is not always about the institutions, right? We make art for ourselves, we need to make art for our own liberation. So when institutions decide to take up this art, it’s usually because there’s something going on and there’s now economic credibility to this art.

In terms of the Brooklyn Museum, when it does these shows, I definitely think it’s helpful. I think it’s great that shows like Black Radical Women, Latin American Art, Soul of the Nation are happening, but I think it’s important to know that that’s not the end goal. That’s not the horizon of where we are going. From small to bigger institutions, I think everyone understands that there’s this crisis of white supremacy and settler colonization and some places do have the will, and some places not, to actually think of these things. I think often what happens with diversity inclusion is that it’s inclusion into a system that is already a racist system.

Amin Husain: I think the other problem with good shows is bad money. That’s really the issue—good shows, bad money. You’re art washing and you’re making okay the bad behavior that is producing that money. What that does is it makes us complicit in the violence that’s happening to our communities. Meaning, the Black Radical Women show can archive something, it can be beautiful to experience, but then there’s the question of who goes to the museum? What’s happening at the doorstep of the museum isn’t a separate issue, it means who is this space for?

If a museum is going to put up a show about radical politics, because it’s what we need right now to combat fascism and to take care of each other, then we have to ask where the money is coming from.

Our museums are beholden to the money that they are receiving, which determines the type of programming and exhibitions that will be shown. So it also means what kind of aesthetics is produced by the artist and what kind of topics are fundable and what type of topics are not fundable. If a museum is going to put up a show about radical politics, because it’s what we need right now to combat fascism and to take care of each other, then we have to ask where the money is coming from.

ND: I do think the argument people make often is, “If you don’t have this you won’t have anything,” and that’s actually not true. In other words, put your money where your mouth is. Yes, you’re saying the right thing, but are you really doing it? Because it means not having unpaid interns, it means allowing your workers to unionize. Because you put up a Black Radical tradition show, but at the same time you’re hiring a white curator. The problem is also that you can’t have an anti-colonial show curated, even if you’re curating with stolen objects, [because] we don’t have any [information] about what’s in the Brooklyn Museum, and it’s a public museum.

That kind of myth or excuse that people use, “If museums don’t take this money, then we can’t have the museums at all, or these places couldn’t exist.” Why do you think people fall back on this false logic so often when we’re having these conversations about bad money?

AH: On one level I think that it’s a failure of imagination and it’s the moment that we’re living in. In other words, things need a lot of money. Where is the money gonna come from? We’re barely living paycheck to paycheck, so it needs to come from people with wealth. [All of our] museums are part of that ecosystem of the one percent in the world. Their money comes from over there, it’s there little kind of hobby, and they make their personas better, cleaner. They were born into this system. Their argument inside is always, “There is no alternative, we need money. If you’re against this, tell us how to get money.” We try to tell them that by refusing that money, you open up space for different kinds of money. Maybe they’re lazy about it, maybe they don’t care, maybe they’re friends with the people who want to give the money.

ND: I think the reason that people say that is because it challenges power. What we’re trying to do here is challenge power. I don’t think anybody wants to give up their power and that becomes even more evident. Specifically, these board members who are not willing to budge.

When you two are thinking about decolonizing an institution, where do you begin?

ND: I think in the case of the U.S., you have to acknowledge that you’re on stolen land. How were these institutions built and who sustained them? That’s the starting point. The other important thing to mention is that a lot of this work comes from a movement place so the work happens on the ground, in the city, making relationships. For example, when the Brooklyn Museum crisis happened, within two days there were 12 groups that got mobilized: the American Indian Community House, Black Youth Project 100, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, Chinatown Arts Brigade, the list goes on.

Each institution is going to screw up publicly several times. What happens every day is a whole other matter.

That has been the core work, and that’s where we put most of our energy, because we don’t think of it as reactionary organizing. Each institution is going to screw up publicly several times. What happens every day is a whole other matter. It’s most important that we do work that’s visionary, which is part of visionary organizing versus reactionary. When institutions do publicly have these moments of crisis, we’re able to respond in a much more structural manner, and we’re able to respond in a way that makes sense to all of our communities.

Can you explain what you mean by visionary organizing as opposed to reactionary?

AH: It’s a term that’s used by Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs. It’s basically doing the organizing and living the way you want to, like the world you want to live in now. It counters the reality, like this is how the world is, and it says, “We are going to live now and demand and do the kind of work that is what we imagine as the world we want to be living in.” If you apply that to the institutions, it’s like the museum doesn’t have to be this way, the museum could be another way. It also means that we’re not going to buy into, “This is how museums are or they go away.”

It means that we’re going to hold them accountable and in the process, we’re going to hold together and build alternatives; alternative exhibitions, alternative opportunities, shows in our living rooms, shows in the street. But it’s all part of the world that we create now and in doing that we’re building our numbers and changing the way we look at things. Visionary organizing is about building as much as it is about resisting.

Just being critical of race and gender is not decolonization at all.

Something that I think about as a writer, and you see this happen at a lot of media organizations, is this idea that representation by default is progress and then nothing else happens beyond that. It seems like you see these museums that stage these exhibitions that are filled with a diverse group of artists who are speaking to political themes, but then the museum doesn’t move beyond the exhibition.

ND: I think the idea of representation to me again goes back to diversity and inclusion. What does it mean to think about that and change that? I think what you’re pointing out is very true. All of these things, any of these institutions, it’s very cosmetic. Most of the conversation is happening between predominantly higher up white staff. A lot of [these staffers] think that just because they’ve been critical about race and gender, they have been decolonized. Just being critical of race and gender is not decolonization at all.

AH: The other thing is part of what it means for us is that we want to win. We want wins for our communities. We know that if we don’t get wins, the way they’re doing stuff is killing us or legitimizing the killing. Whether it’s the killing of the climate, the earth, or it’s killing on the border, or it’s just like all of these things. That’s kind of the immediate stake we have in this that pushes us to act. Again, the Brooklyn Museum just sticks because we have so much more back and forth with the museum, but [Shelby White and Leon Levy Director of the Brooklyn Museum] Anne Pasternak comes and says, “We have the best curator for the job.” Why are they the best curator? Because they graduated from Princeton and somehow there was an ad when they got married in the New York Times. That’s who we’re talking about!

What we’re trying to say is that people who are screwed by the system in innumerable ways have firsthand knowledge of that. You’re prioritizing a certain kind of knowledge that is remote from people’s realities. Then they bring their Black friends to weigh in and the Black friends are graduating from UCLA or Princeton as well and they’re saying, “No, it’s not the museum that’s the problem. It just so happens that everyone who goes to university to study curating are white women.” So then you get down this path of, “Oh, who can afford to study curating?” It’s a privilege, right? Somehow structurally we need to take care of things on the university end.

Obviously, decolonization is an ongoing process, there are no easy answers, as you mentioned before, with board members who just simply don’t want to do the work. When you sort of trace the problems in these spaces down to the university level like that, does the process ever feel overwhelming? Just in facing how deep-rooted the problem is?

ND: Personally for me, I would feel overwhelmed if I was alone in it. [I’m not overwhelmed] just because we have a collective. An ongoing process means that we need to check ourselves as well. Within our own communities of organizing, we had problems with patriarchy and we had problems of race, but the idea is that we build communities that are gracious. We can learn together, and unlearn together. The good thing has been that there are networks and relationships that have been forged and we can keep each other together.

AH: For me, I don’t feel like I have a choice. People protest, even Pepsi is putting ads of protest on. I think that’s great that people are becoming more politically conscious, but just protesting isn’t enough. We know that any political process of just accepting things the way that [they are] actually has a cost on us and our communities. With that in mind, decolonization seems like the right thing for us because we are building power together and undoing these things that divide us, even though the winds are not as translatable in the immediate future.

Decolonization isn’t on people’s mind, and [people] don’t have to use that word, but they have to see the interconnectivity of everything beginning with the land that’s stolen and slavery as not being in the past; we’re living its legacy now. We’re going to look at each institution wherever we are and we are going to build power together. That’s why over three years, the last time we went to the American Museum of Natural History, we were over a thousand people. The fact that there were over a thousand people that took over an entire space and had an assembly and stayed beyond open hours of the museum, means that we’re reclaiming our space and doing something.

History is important, things are important, but the context and the narrative that is told around it is what’s really important. Putting a plate on that statue, that’s also another favorite thing. “Let’s put plaques that say this is colonial” does not help.

I wanted to ask you both about this quote from the former Museum of Contemporary Art curator Helen Molesworth who wrote in Artforum that in her time as an art curator, she came to believe that “collecting, displaying, interpreting culture may be unredeemable” as a practice. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that—can all institutions be decolonized or are some unredeemable?

ND: I think the example of the Guggenheim is actually really good here. We’ve also been part of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition [fighting for workers’ rights at the site of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.] We were doing these direction actions and while this was going on for five years, I mean it’s still going on but not visibly active right now, but the things that I learned were that a lot of times with these institutions, this is specifically with the Guggenheim, [they] can keep holding meetings with you to stall the process, but they really do not have their heart in the right place. Helen’s case is very similar to [Former Queens Museum director] Laura Raicovich’s case. I think with Laura it’s important to say it was Palestine [Note: Raicovich disagreed with the Board’s decision to hold an event sponsored by Israel in support of the partitioning of Palestine to form Israel] and that’s another thing that’s important to us. When we talk about these institutions, Palestine is often the litmus test because of the funding and where it comes from.

AH: Maybe it’s not whether a museum is redeemable or not because we’re not into redeeming museums, we know their colonial history. The issue is can a museum, today, be responsive to notions of accountability, community, justice, and openness, and be a more democratic space? That’s really what’s at stake here. Museums are not inherently any way.

ND: I think changing the narrative is usually part of it and I think the case of the American Museum of Natural History is actually really good with this. If you think about it, the American Museum of Natural History, going way back, treated anybody who was not of European descent as the other. It was a museum for the whole eugenics movement.

AH: And they had Ota Benga.

ND: Yeah they had Ota Benga, so the American Museum of Natural History is on that timeline. And I think it’s important to think about their dioramas, that there are spiritually active things that Indigenous people held that have been put behind glass. It’s a dead space. The way people curate it, the way people are put in the past, the way we all have been segregated—Asian, African—it’s violent on a level that’s global. Then you talk about the statue outside of Theodore Roosevelt and [people] say, “We want to keep the statue because we don’t want to lose the history.” Keep that statue, but can you put it inside the museum in a glass case, and say never do this again? It’s standing outside with all its gloriousness. History is important, things are important, but the context and the narrative that is told around it is what’s really important. Putting a plate on that statue, that’s also another favorite thing. “Let’s put plaques that say this is colonial” does not help.

Beyond your actions that you’re planning with the Whitney, and the organizing you’re doing, what else is Decolonize This Place working on with other museums or institutions in the city? What are you thinking about next?

ND: We’re thinking about what are next steps that are important to push the conversation around decolonization. I think in the future you’ll see a lot of spaces that we build that are not just related to the institutions visibly.

AH: We’re looking in the next couple of months, if we are fortunate enough and the conversation is at an advanced stage, to have a physical space in the city that could be an alternative movement space that is decolonial in its approach, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist. [To] really kind of build on the 50 collaborators that actually constitute Decolonize This Place. What we’ve done these past two, three years is focus on mapping sites of injustice through institutions as we build our power and relations and what we call training in the practice of freedom, but we are not limited to these institutions. We are thinking about the city as ours and the city as a place that needs to be different and reclaimed.

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