PRINT Summer 2018


WHEN INVITED TO RESPOND to the question “Where is enlightenment?” writer Jasbir K. Puar suggested a conversation with Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon of the New York-based groups MTL Collective and Decolonize This Place. Here, they speak about the role of cultural institutions in perpetuating structural injustice and what a decolonial analytic and practice could look like.

Pro-Palestinian banner, Manhattan Bridge, New York, August 20, 2014.

JASBIR K. PUAR: You have organized successful actions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum, in each case drawing broad attention to embedded structures of whiteness, colonial acquisition, and historical and cultural deformation. These institutions are cultural mainstays of New York and are driven by huge amounts of wealth and cultural capital, elite donors, and liberal ideologies. These are not “of the people” spaces, even as they purport to create artistic experiences for the people.

Why direct your energies at these establishments? What do you hope to gain besides generating greater awareness of the violence of museums? How would you contrast these actions with the other protests of “art-washing” that you have staged, in Chinatown for example, in relation to gentrification, and to the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

MTL COLLECTIVE: Targeting large cultural institutions can be useful to movement building. First, these institutions are indeed large—architecturally, symbolically, and in terms of their media profiles. They offer highly visible platforms for amplifying the contradictions between the progressive values they claim to embody—public education, civic engagement, aesthetic cultivation, and even, in recent years, radical politics—and the structures of power that they actually help to legitimize and reproduce. However, for us, merely exposing such contradictions is not an end in itself, nor are we interested in merely improving institutions to get them to live up to their liberal principles—in “making museums moral again,” as Holland Cotter put it in the New York Times.

Our actions are designed to create crises of governance for institutions, putting them in “decision dilemmas.” The actions are grounded in specific demands for transformation—paying the debts of workers building the cultural and educational institutions on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi [United Arab Emirates], for example, or removing the statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History—but they are implanted within a radical imagination of what it would mean to totally overhaul the institution and the principles by which it is governed. Furthermore, this twofold sense of institutional transformation is always connected to movements, groups, and communities that extend far beyond the art system. We see each action not only in terms of winning or losing on a specific demand, but also in terms of the relationships that are cultivated in the process.

Decolonize This Place, for instance, is the result of years of organizing across a spectrum of struggles from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock to Free Palestine. Actions targeting mega-institutions like the Guggenheim or the Brooklyn Museum have served as an occasion for linking up with groups working locally against arts-led gentrification, as when Chinatown Art Brigade had to go on the offensive against Omer Fast’s 2017 exhibition at James Cohan Gallery, which turned the space into an ironic imitation of a dilapidated Chinese American store. It is a matter of facilitating formations and decolonial solidarities over time that extend beyond any particular institution or demand, while remaining deeply attentive to the specificities of struggle. Thus, when an action for Palestine is organized, comrades from Take Back the Bronx show up, and vice versa.

Cumulatively, our experiences of art and struggle here led us away from a social-justice framework and toward a decolonial analytic and practice. A formation infused by this analytic has come together in recent years in New York, capable of activating whenever necessary. As artists, organizers, and communities, we struggle against gentrification, recognizing it as a kind of displacement and dispossession that has been going on for centuries, and that the indigenous peoples of this land and Palestine continue to endure.

There is no blueprint for what decolonization looks like; it is always context-specific.

It is important to note that there is no blueprint for what decolonization looks like; it is always context-specific. It is a process that requires constant questioning, beginning by thinking from where one stands. As we do this interview, we acknowledge that we are on occupied Lenape territory. In the United States, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang remind us, “settler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone.” Decolonization is not a metaphor, and without emphasizing the centrality of land, water, and air, decolonization is a shell game. Any solidarity must be informed by this analysis, which, in turn, has been set in motion by what we demand of cultural institutions. This is reflected in practice by Decolonize This Place.

JP: Let’s look at a specific example. Your most recent action involved two open letters to the Brooklyn Museum challenging their recent hiring of a white woman as a consulting curator of the African-art collection. Most responses, it seemed to me, argued for the right to a color-blind “expertise” (as if expertise itself were a neutral, universal ideal) and/or noted the dearth of people of color who are art historians or working in museums. In other words, there was a general call for diversification, a deployment of what we consider to be “diversity-speak.”

How is this different from your demand for a decolonization commission? Again, the idea of a “commission” seems to mirror the calcified structures of art museums, so I found it a curious one, which made me wonder once more: What do you want from art institutions?

MTL: When the curatorial hire was announced, people were angry, but not surprised—even at a place like the Brooklyn Museum, which prides itself on its multicultural profile. “Not a good look,” many said, whatever the curator’s academic qualifications.

But the conversation quickly evolved. It moved far beyond any particular hire to focus on systemic injustices involving the museum. Decolonize This Place facilitated a coalition of twenty grassroots community groups, which issued an open letter urging the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the formation of a decolonization commission that would respond to these deeply rooted injustices. This commission would address, among other things, the colonial history of the museum’s non-Western holdings, the lack of diversity among its curatorial staff and executive leadership, the working conditions of its entire staff, the fact that the museum sits on stolen indigenous land, and especially the museum’s role in the gentrification of Brooklyn.

In other words, this hire, a seemingly small misstep by the museum, has provided an opportunity to crack the institution open at its very foundations. Committed in principle to advancing the public good, when targeted with actions like ours the museum provides an example of, and a platform for engaging in, the project of decolonization more generally in the settler colony of the United States. In terms of “diversity-speak,” it is clear that institutions are interested in checking the boxes rather than in shifting power and decentering whiteness. We also understand that inclusion via diversity does not allow for structural transformation, whereas decolonization would.

To be clear: There is always a risk that decolonization becomes a metaphor. An officially sanctioned commission is but one tactic through which to strike. It could very well become an ossified or empty formality with no teeth. That is why we call for the institution not just to create such a commission on its own, but also to participate in a process led by community organizers and artists, so that alternative models for the distribution of space, resources, and power can truly be initiated. The danger of co-optation is very real and must always be kept in check by the community.

JP: You organized a covert action at the Brooklyn Museum on Sunday, April 29, 2018. What do you think you achieved? I’m also curious about the move from the release of manifestos to in-house direct action; both are forms of action, even direct action, but how do you conceptualize the transit and links between these forms?

MTL: The museum’s leadership has flatly ignored our request to use its curatorial crisis as an opportunity to decolonize, hoping that the controversy will blow over. To us, the continuing silence about the decolonization commission shows that the institution is out of touch with the communities at its own doorstep. Director Anne Pasternak’s only statement on the matter has been one of confidence and closure. It gives the impression that the dispute has been put to rest by the affirmation of institutional autonomy, sealed with scholarly authority. We felt the need to deliver our demand in person, with our bodies and voices in the museum itself, so there was no confusion. A nonresponse is not an option. We also wanted the museum to see us and know that we stand ready to take action.

Our letters were a constructive invitation and a way forward, recognizing the complexity of the issues at stake. Importantly, however, there is insufficient comfort in the promise we often hear from museums, which is that they are doing the best they can. The twenty groups in the coalition carried out the action to make it known that the stakeholders want a seat at the table, to begin the process of decolonization around the seven points previously articulated. As well as Decolonize This Place, the coalition includes American Indian Community House, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, Eagle & Condor Community Center, Black Youth Project 100, Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, Equality for Flatbush, Movement to Protect the People, Take Back the Bronx, Chinatown Art Brigade, and others.

JP: One of the demands is for the Brooklyn Museum to make an “institutional commitment to address the issues raised by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in recognition of Brooklynites’ role in the settler movement in Palestine.” This might seem incongruent with your other demands, even by those who support your overall agenda, as Palestine is often the third rail of leftist politics.

Can you elaborate on why this is an integral component that the museum needs to address? I think I was at Decolonize This Place the first time I heard “BDS is the floor, not the ceiling.” How is the Palestinian liberation struggle linked to your work here in New York?

MTL: First, support for settler colonialism in the occupied West Bank comes from those living in the borough of Brooklyn. You can go to our website [decolonize], where we have posted extensive funding research and written material in connection to our 2016 action at the Brooklyn Museum. Our aim in making the issue part of the decolonization commission is to discuss the role of art, artists, and the museum in this matter.

Second, the goal of BDS is an entry point for transnational solidarity with the Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation and enduring settler colonialism. These two considerations inform our idea that “BDS is the floor, not the ceiling.” Like the museum actions described above, we see BDS as a tactic rather than a goal. It is among the very few existing tools for people in the United States to both symbolically withdraw their consent from the legitimacy of the Israeli apartheid regime and impact the cultural reputation and economic viability of that regime, which uses techniques of art-washing and pink-washing to present itself as a liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan oasis in the Middle East.

BDS has been gaining traction in academia and, more slowly, in the art world in recent years. The endorsement of BDS by the Movement for Black Lives helped make it a litmus test for progressive artists and academics: Which side are you on? This connection to black liberation and indigenous struggle is essential. Left to its own devices, BDS could easily become a narrow single-issue campaign rather than an exemplary movement against white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and US geopolitical strategy. Thus, when we target an entity like Artis, which is devoted to taking delegations of art-world elites on tours of the Israeli art world, we frame our approach not only in terms of BDS but also [in terms of] decolonization.

All oppressed people have a stake in the local conditions of occupied Palestine as much as they do in those of Chinatown. Our film, with the working title On This Land, articulates these stakes through cinema, time, space, land, fiction, future, and memory, considering ways in which the past is never past and the future exists in the now, in the process teaching us to see differently and to reorient to one another. It also encourages the idea that our struggles must be driven by desire rather than pain; the latter model relies on the false assumption that if we show the pain, things will change.

JP: What is the work you are doing in Palestine? How do you think, beyond BDS, the transnational affinities and connections you are fostering materialize in the occupied West Bank?

MTL: We build across borders as a way of thinking and acting with Palestine. Our work includes having Decolonize This Place members and collaborators in Palestine. We have supported creative actions in Bethlehem. We have involved friends and family in the making of the film, and we have used the film to facilitate conversations. We did Dignity Strike in 2017, when around fifteen hundred Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails went on strike, amplifying their struggle through art, writing, and action. When one of the members of Decolonize This Place was arrested, we mobilized across our formations to advocate for his release. We are in constant communication with Palestine while simultaneously thinking about how we can support decolonial freedom here and in Kashmir and Puerto Rico. We are always thinking about how to break the isolation of Palestinians, and one of our latest efforts is to create underground spaces of exchange led by folks there.

Two final thoughts: First, as Palestine is not yet an independent nation-state, it is our future and exemplifies what decolonization could look like. Second—and this analysis has yet to permeate the art world—the triangulation of Indigenous Struggle, Black Liberation, and a Free Palestine produces a rearrangement of relations that can upend empire.

Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon Are MTL Collective, a collaboration that joins research, aesthetics, organizing, and action in its practice. MTL is a founding member of Tidal: Occupy Theory; Direct Action Front for Palestine; Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.); the Autonomous Direct-Action Wing of Gulf Labor Artist Coalition; Decolonial Cultural Front; and most recently MTL+, the collective facilitating Decolonize This Place, which includes Lorena Ambrosio, Kyle Goen, Crystal Hans, Yates Mckee, Vaimoana Niumeitolu, Aiko Roudette, Andrew Ross, Marz Saffore, and Amy Weng.

Jasbir K. Puar is professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. Her latest book is The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Duke University Press, 2017).