Contemporary Art Museum under fire for ‘racist’ exhibit


The high white walls blend in as if they are meant to be in the middle of the room. The only thing giving them away is the warning sign standing at the opening. For the curious, or the angered, going beyond the obtuse walls reveals the plight of African-Americans in the United States, from a white man’s artistic perspective.

The walls, in fact, are part of a ‘don’t want to see, don’t have to see,’ solution the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) has put into effect regarding an outcry of dissent from the community following the Kelley Walker exhibition, “Direct Drive” and an unsatisfying question-and-answer session with Walker.

The exhibit features photographs of African-American history that have been modified by Walker, seemingly with no meaning. The pieces of the collection that have caused outrage are “Black Star Press” and “Schema: Aqua Fresh plus Crest Whitening Expressions.”

The first piece is rotated 90 degrees so that it is lying sideways, and features a photograph from the 1963 Birmingham protests depicting a white police officer letting a dog loose on a young protestor. It’s a photograph that has been a staple in history text books, and easily comes to mind when thinking of the Civil Rights Era. However, Walker has splashed it with melted white, milk and dark chocolate, rendering it almost unrecognizable.

“Schema”, features the cover of a men’s magazine, “King,” with the image of an African-American women in a bathing suit. Much like in “Black Star Press,” Walker modified the cover using toothpaste that he transferred onto the image. The baby blue and pink, along with white, are smeared all over the woman’s body.

The exhibit opened on Sept. 16, 2016, and immediately raised a lot of questions pertaining to Walker’s intentions and decisions to use certain images. The museum decided to hold a Q. and A. session in order to give concerned patrons an explanation. However, the session backfired, primarily because of Walker’s attitude towards the audience. “He refused to answer simple questions about his work, and became combative with multiple audience members in attendance. Chief Curator Jeffrey Uslip chose to interrupt audience members, end the Q. and A. session, and shut the space to intellectual discourse,” says Saint Louis University art history and African-American Studies professor, Dr. Olubukola Gbadegesin.

Professor Gbadegesin also believes that it is a failure on the part of the CAM, its curator and Walker for not “facilitating the audience’s encounter with artwork—that is the very mission that they are charged with.” There was no effort to address concerns until a local African-American artist, Damon Davis, known for his depictions of the unrest in Ferguson, took to his Facebook page. Davis decried the exhibit and the artist for being insensitive to the history of African-Americans in the United States and the museum for not taking the art down. Davis is now calling for a boycott of the museum. “This is a major part of the criticism that CAM, as an institution, ought to interrogate. In fact, it’s an indictment of the reactive or altogether silent approach that a number of institutions in St. Louis City take towards Black voices and concerns,” says Gbadegesin.

The exhibit is set to run through Dec. 31. In a city such as St. Louis — a city still attempting to bridge the divides between races — the toss-up comes to respecting the arts and respecting the people the art inspired.

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