A racially-charged exhibition is causing controversy at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. On Tuesday, museum curators put up a wall in front of the exhibition, in response to demands to remove the works of art.
The controversy began when the artist, Kelley Walker, gave a talk at the Contemporary Art Museum. Fellow artists felt he did not answer their questions about the meaning behind his controversial artwork; specifically, images of African Americans throughout history, smeared with whitening toothpaste, milk and chocolate bars. Walker said these works are meant to explore the politics of race. But for some, the art is deeply offensive.
“People who lost their lives to civil rights, to just put chocolate sauce on it, it’s disrespectful," said Kahlil Irving, a local artist. "It’s like desecration to the nth degree. It shows that even though this thing happened, it still doesn’t matter. We can put chocolate sauce on it, we can put toothpaste on this woman’s body, even though she herself might feel empowered.”
Irving and three African-American museum employees are among those who want the artwork taken down.
“It would show that the museum acknowledges and represents equality,” Irving said.
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship(NCAC), removing this artwork would set a dangerous precedent.
“Removing the artworks from view serves no one," said Joy Garnett of the NCAC. "It arrests a necessary conversation and shifts attention from the issues being discussed (racism and violence) to censorship. It…creates a precedent where a museum's programming is determined by external political voices.”
Lisa Melandri, Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Museum, says they will not remove the works of art. Instead, she says they are re-arranging the exhibition, with a sign explaining why.
“We felt it was very important not for censorship but for sensitivity, that we make sure that we allowed our viewers the choice to see these works or not,” she said.
Artist Kelley Walker has also responded to the criticisms. His statement is as follows:
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.
The KING magazine covers and Black Star Press works — two series among a broader body of work that deals with the circulation and recycling of images — are at the center of this controversy as they explore the politics of race. Although the works date from the early 2000s, they have been exhibited many times since then and I have also spoken about them in depth in prior artist talks and interviews, I should have been much clearer and more articulate about them. 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.
I am a staunch advocate of social equality and civil rights in America. I am also an artist who seeks to create thoughtful, sometimes difficult dialogues about these issues. I have always hoped that these works, and the exhibition as a whole, would provide a forum for a conversation about the way American society gets represented in the media as images shift from context to context (newspapers, magazines, film, TV, etc.) and about how the representation of the body, particularly of the black body, is an exceedingly complex topic in American art and culture.
I hope that the St. Louis community will give my exhibition a chance to generate this conversation. I also hope that the community, as well as the museum, its director and its staff, will understand how much I regret the misunderstanding and the ill feeling caused thus far.