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“Black Pain Is Not for Profit”: Activists Protest Luke Willis Thompson’s Turner Prize Nomination

Around a dozen members of the art collective BBZ London and other activists wearing shirts that read “Black Pain Is Not for Profit” staged an action at the opening of the 2018 Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain on Tuesday, September 25, in protest of the nomination of New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson’s autoportrait, 2017. According to the group’s Instagram, it decided to take a “symbolic stand” against the work and the use of black trauma by non-black artists and arts institutions for cultural and financial gain.

Thompson’s autoportrait—a silent, black-and-white film installation and portrait of Diamond Reynolds, who broadcasted on Facebook Live the fatal shooting of her boyfriend Philando Castile, a black motorist who was killed by police during a traffic stop in 2016—has been a polarizing artwork ever since it first debuted at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, the artist’s first solo show in the UK, last year.

At the heart of the issue is that Thompson, who the collective has labeled as “white passing,” identifies as black, just “not of the African diaspora.” (He is of Fijian and European descent.) In an interview with Tavia Nyong’o, a professor who teaches African American, American, and theater studies at Yale University, at Chisenhale Gallery on August 17, 2017, Thompson acknowledged that a question that seems to follow him after making autoportrait is, “Who are you to make this work?”

For BBZ London member Rene Matić, who wrote an essay in response to Thompson’s inclusion in the Turner Prize that was published on the website Gal-Dem in May and recently shared on BBZ London’s Instagram, what Thompson identifies as does not change the fact that he is a “white-passing male, making work and profiting off the violence and suffering of black and marginalized people.” Thompson received the $40,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize earlier this year and will be awarded $33,000 if selected as the award winner for this year’s Turner Prize.

Matić claims that Thompson is obsessed with racial violence and calls into question a number of his other pieces such as his silent 16mm film comprising portraits of black men, Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, and his 2015 New Museum Triennial work for which visitors to the exhibition were asked to follow a black tour guide on a walking tour from Manhattan to the Bronx.

The controversy surrounding the work echoes the backlash sparked by Dana Schutz’s Open Casket—an abstract painting of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was brutally murdered by a white mob in Mississippi in 1955—that was featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The work inspired artist Hannah Black to write an open letter denouncing Schutz’s work and demanding that the piece be removed, as well as a number of other protests.

According to The Guardian, Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain, said that the show is the most political exhibition in the museum’s history. “It feels like a Turner prize that is very much of our times. I just think this is an incredibly political moment on all levels, in Europe, in America and many regions of the world.” The museum has yet to respond to artforum.com’s request for comment on the protest.

Tate released the following statement about the action: 

“At 21.20 on Monday 24 September a small group of visitors wearing identical t-shirts sat on the sofas in the Turner Prize exhibition foyer. They sat in silence for a few minutes and then left the gallery.

“Luke Willis Thompson does not identify as white, he is originally from New Zealand, of Polynesian heritage and is mixed race. This trilogy of work by Luke Willis Thompson reflects his ongoing enquiry into questions of race, class and social inequality, which is informed by his own experience growing up as a mixed-race person in New Zealand. These films were made in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement and the artist sees his works as acts of solidarity with his subjects. He links his own position as a New Zealander of Fijian descent, treated as a person of colour in his home country, to that of other marginalised and disempowered communities. He finds ways of suggesting connections while also acknowledging the limits of what we can know of another’s pain, and how it can be represented.”

The other artists recognized by the 2018 prize include Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, and Charlotte Prodger. The award also made headlines earlier this year for changing the age for eligibility. The elimination of the fifty-year-old age cap allowed the prize to honor its oldest winner, Lubaina Himid, who accepted the prize last year at the age of sixty-three.

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