Aruna D’Souza talks art & protest

Writer visits campus to discuss racial politics of galleries

D’Souza (left) says race and protest play a key role in the politics behind art galleries.

Art and protest—for Aruna D’Souza, the two are key to understanding today’s culture.

D’Souza sat down with Arts Editor Merray Gerges in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on Tuesday to talk about her new book, Whitewalling: Art, Race and Protest in Three Acts. 

At the event, D’Souza, a fulltime writer and columnist for art magazine 4Columns, spoke about how contemporary art history prompted her to start this book. In it, she covers three protests—in 2017, 1979, and 1969—against white artists and the galleries that supported them. 

D’Souza’s work explores the ways art galleries privilege white artists. In her research, she found history of institutional racism that protected white artists’ work when complaints were raised against them. Meanwhile, Black artists often had their work removed under similar pushback. 

While writing about these protests, she refutes claims of censorship  white artists levied against criticism of their use of Black culture. The book is an engaging exploration of power imbalances recreated in contemporary art galleries.

“Part of it is journalism, and part of it is history. Mapping out who said what, where the arguments were being made, what the arguments were, and what underlay them,” D’Souza told The Journal in an interview. 

In each situation outlined in the book, white artists benefited from portraying Black experiences and struggles. In her book, she argues white artists often defend themselves, saying they’re entitled to freedom of expression. According to D’Souza, these artists claim preventing the incorporation of Black experiences limits their creativity.

D’Souza argues it isn’t a matter of censorship, but of providing a platform. Galleries have the power to determine who can use their space as a platform for their work and subsequent message. 

“The book is really about the ways in which art institutions, despite their best intentions and the best intentions of the people who work there, often end up circling around whiteness and the protection of whiteness; and the authority of the white artist or the white curator,” D’Souza said. 

She analyzes the artists and the protestors at the heart of each scandal, offering a more complete view of the racism in the art world.  In the case of the 2017 protest profiled in the book, an artist repainted a photo of a 14-year-old that was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The artist claimed she could relate with the boy’s mother who supplied the photo to media, but not as a Black woman. Protestors argued her painting was still exploitative. 

D’Souza’s book analyzes how events like this speak to the broader art world. 

“How are the systems that are allowing for what’s going on out there produced in my 

little world, whatever that world is,” D’Souza said. “How do I put my efforts to work in a way that actually serves a larger purpose of getting people to recognize the ways in which race and racism permeate?”

For her, the issue isn’t only that white artists can benefit from misfortune and underrepresentation of non-white artists. It’s that galleries allow it.  

“All museums are, by their nature, gatekeepers. They’re telling you what’s going to go on the wall and what’s not going on the wall,” she said. 

“A lot of these protests really brought to light that artistic freedom is something people can claim once they’ve already been let through the gates.” 

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