FIVE @ Leeds Art Gallery: Thinking about Race in an Art Museum

A couple of weeks back, I attended FIVE, an event at Leeds Art Gallery that explored the museum’s collection from a post-colonial perspective. In addition to all its intrinsic rewards, the event also made me think more about some questions at the intersection of aesthetics and race.

Even before any words were said, two remarkable facts about the event stood out to me. First, the Leeds Art Gallery has clearly put in much effort to make the event accessible. Throughout all the talks and the Q&As, there were two British Sign Language interpreters present, which allowed the attendance and participation of Deaf, deaf, and hard-of-hearing members of the community. Second, and even more salient to me, all of the speakers embodied underrepresented perspectives. Perhaps this is not so surprising given the theme, but it is incredibly rare in the museum context, in the art world, and of course in academia as well.

What explains the underrepresentation and ghettoization of non-whites in the art world? Are racialized art curations—such as an exhibit that explicitly focuses on black artists only—ethically or aesthetically justified?

Learning about the museum’s collection from a postcolonial perspective actually heightened my aesthetic experience of them, albeit in unexpected ways. For example, a painting that I’ve long casually dismissed as an amateurish allegory actually became more interesting to me when I learned it was part of the British propaganda to justify their horrific actions in India. The painting featured a white angelic figure slaying the Bengal tiger. It is not the subtlest of all symbols, which makes it rather amateurish as an allegory, but perfectly appropriate as propaganda. What was previously an aesthetic flaw somehow ceased to be one, even though the painting is certainly more morally flawed for it. It was also striking to hear from a black speaker that her vivid memory of coming to the museum involves walking into this gallery that had only one painting featuring people of color, and only as colonial subjects.

How do artworks contribute to the experience of being racialized in contemporary society? For example, how might racist tropes in artistic representations—even when they are intended as subversive—contribute to the internalizations of stereotypes that are harmful to self-conceptions for members of subordinated racial groups?

The final talk of the event featured artist and professor Lubaina Himid discussing her painting Five.

"Five" by Lubaina Himid
“Five” by Lubaina Himid

There were many fascinating things she said about the painting itself, as well as her experience both as an artist and as a curator in the British art world. However, two remarks really stood out to me. Speaking about her painting, she noted:

How rare it is to see two black women in a painting at the same time.

In the same way that most Hollywood movies fail the Bechdel test, I would not be at all surprised if most art exhibitions fail this—we might call it—Himid’s test.

Then, speaking about museum collections from an artist and curator’s perspective, she noted:

If you want a diverse audience for your museum, then you need to have a diverse collection of artists.

Again, I think Prof. Himid is completely spot on. Unfortunately in my experience, most art institutions still fail egregiously in this regard.

Are there implicit racial biases that affect assessments of aesthetic virtues, such as creativity? What is the significance of such biases for philosophical assessments of aesthetic evaluation?

There were many insights from Prof. Himid’s talk that I cannot possibly reproduce here. But, just as a final note, her talk also made me think about an analogous situation that exists in academic philosophy. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman and his colleagues have been making powerful social critiques about institutions within academic philosophy. For example, they have asked, reasonably enough, why is my curriculum white?. This effort has recently culminated in a project they call Dismantling the Master’s House, and I am personally really looking forward to its development.