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Activists Boycott St. Louis Museum for Exhibiting “Racially and Sexually Charged” Works

Artist and activist Damon Davis is urging people to boycott the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis due to its “racially and sexually charged” exhibition “Kelley Walker: Direct Drive,” which opened on September 16, Jenny Simeone of St. Louis Public Radio reports.

Organized by chief curator Jeffrey Uslip, the show is Georgia-born, New York–based artist Kelley Walker’s first solo exhibition in a US museum. Among the works on display are Walker’s “Black Star Press” and “Schema” series, for which the artist appropriates photographs of civil rights protests and of black people being brutalized by police and then smears whitening toothpaste and chocolate, among other materials, on the images.

In a Facebook post, Davis writes, “This work is offensive to black people, black women in particular, and the black struggle for freedom that us and our ancestors have been engaging in since this country was founded.”

At an artist talk hosted by the museum, Davis tried to question the artist about the works. Davis said, “When confronted with an actual black person, Walker became flustered and angry and had no actual answer for why he was using these images. When he couldn’t answer my questions, the curator, Jeffrey Uslip, interjected and tried to explain for him. If you are an artist and you are making work that is specifically racially and sexually charged, if you use black people for props in your work, then at least be ready to explain yourself.”

After the talk, the museum issued an apology on its Facebook page that said: “There were questions raised during the Q&A portion of his artist talk that were not adequately answered. We accept responsibility for the breakdown in conversation that occurred. We apologize, and acknowledge that this is especially problematic given the current climate in our region. To that end, we are reaching out to those who have raised their voices to engage in further dialogue. We respect the well-being of our community and strive to provide opportunities for all voices and perspectives to be heard.”

Walker addressed the critics of his show and the audience members at the Q&A in the following statement: “I deeply regret that a great deal of anger, frustration and resentment have developed in the St. Louis community as a result of my failure to engage certain questions from the audience during the public lecture at CAM last Saturday. The concerns were legitimate, so I regret that I did not answer them adequately at the time . . . Given the painful recent history of the city, as well as the much longer history of violence and injustice directed at its African-American community, I should have been better prepared to address the subject matter.”

In a letter addressed to the museum’s senior directors and delivered on September 21, three of the museum’s black staff members, De Andrea Nichols, Lyndon Barrois Jr., and Victoria Donaldson, wrote, “It is with conviction we sustain belief that Uslip, Walker, Walker’s body of works, and thus the museum at-large have—whether intentionally or not—created racial and cultural insensitivity, discomfort, and infractions upon museum staff, the museum’s audiences, the St. Louis artist community, and the St. Louis community at-large through the presentation of these bodies of work and the support of the aforementioned artist.”

It also stated: “As St. Louis exists as a central location for the contemporary civil rights movement in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson, the work triggers a retraumitization of racial and regional pain. As black staff members, allies, and community members are constantly inundated with the recurring semi-daily deaths of black people at the hands of police (even during the immediate day’s following the exhibition’s opening), works within ‘Black Star Press’ inflict additional insult and injury to the injustices of our time. To provide a white, male artist the entirety of the museum and include works of this nature positions the museum and its staff in implicit support and perpetuation of these societal ills.”

The letter urges Uslip to make a personal apology to the staff and the museum to publically apologize to the audience who attended the controversial artist talk, which took place on September 17. It requests approval from Walker and his gallery, Paula Cooper, to publish the video documenting the talk and demands Uslip’s resignation, the removal of the offensive works, and a reassessment of institutional and curatorial policies at the museum so that this level of cultural insensitivity can be prevented in the future.

Uslip, who joined the museum as chief curator three years ago, said that he spearheaded the exhibition because he thought Walker was “the right artist for St. Louis.” Uslip said, “He is the one contemporary artist of our generation that is thinking through history, race, identity, and their lasting evolving and rotating implications. Kelley is not telling us what to think—one way or another—what he is allowing his practice to help us think through the issues of our time.”

The exhibition will be on view until December 31, 2016.