NEW YORK—The idea of displacement tends to conjure up mental images of refugee camps and border crossings brimming with people who have been forced to flee their homeland due to war, environmental disaster, or political oppression. This notion of displacement is so widespread, that local upheaval, or “slow violence,” is all but overlooked.
in/stasis, a curated exhibition organized by Daría Sól Andrews, Sally Eaves Hughes, and Klaudia Ofwona Draber for the Whitney Museum of Art Independent Study Program, brings together 13 different artists to explore and challenge our collective understanding of displacement. The represented artwork juxtaposes the physical movement of individuals and indigenous nations, geographic diaspora, with gradual disruption in static communities. Examples of this gradual disruption include the erasure of culture and history (which typically targets BIPOC communities), depletion or loss of access to natural resources, and legal bureaucracies that exist to prevent certain communities from having too much power.
What: in/stasis: An exhibition curated by the 2021–22 Curatorial Fellows of the Whitney Independent Study Program
When: May 20 – 29, 2022
Where: Artists Space, 11 Cortlandt Alley, New York
Environmental scholar Rob Nixon’s postulations serve as the groundwork for the exhibition, embracing what Nixon refers to as “…a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss…that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it inhabitable.”
Curator Daría Sól Andrews further elaborates in the exhibition catalog: “If displacement refers more often to conditions of eviction and forced exile, Nixon describes slow violence as a form of ‘displacement without moving’ which involves a rupture in the everyday that takes place over longer periods of time and often remains readily ignored or invisible. An over emphasis on the movement of the body in considering the violence of displacement similarly distracts from the kinds of violence that operates by degrading an environment in which one is forcibly located.”
This sentiment may resonate with individuals on a broader scale in the current climate than it would have 10 years ago – while many of us have remained in the same geographical location, we experienced a major shift in the way of life when COVID-19 came into the picture. In school, children have dealt with remote learning and inconsistent direction, which has resulted in lower achievement in math and reading compared to pre-pandemic levels, and this disparity is greater among American Indian and Alaskan Native, Black, and Latinx students, according to a report from the NWEA. There are other obvious yet obscured ways that displacement has affected certain populations. As a result of colonialism, Black and Indigenous communities have been stripped of their autonomy through systemic violence for generations, now upheld by institutions like the school-to-prison pipeline and whitewashed national history. Minimizing the impact of local displacement caused by governments and corporations allows them to continue oppressing marginalized communities with little accountability.
The artists selected to decipher themes of displacement in the exhibition are Natalie Ball, Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, Carolina Caycedo, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Emily Jacir, Tomashi Jackson, Nadia Myre, Otobong Nkanga, Cameron Rowland, Farideh Sakhaeifar, Sheida Soleimani, and Betty Yu.
Most of the featured artists were born in the 1970s and 1980s, but their heritage and upbringings are widely diverse, each drawing on personal, familial, and communal narratives to convey their respective messages. Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist, worked on a performance piece in the early 2000s wherein she would use her American passport to travel to Palestine on behalf of Palestinians who were blocked from entering their land. She would ask her fellow Palestinians who are unable to enter the nation due to Israeli restrictions what they would do if they had the opportunity to return, and then she would do her best to carry out that task. In 2004, Israel restricted Jacir’s movements and the project ended abruptly, which inadvertently underscored the statement she was trying to make about restricted movement in public spaces. Exhibited in the show, Where We Come From (2002-2003) utilizes documentary film, photographs, and text pieces inspired by this performance. Curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber discusses Jacir’s work, stating: “To the extent that her project is about facilitating a relation to home, it also acts as a form of resistance to the erasure of Palestinian memory and homecoming that is not only rendered impossible by ongoing occupation but erased as part of the neocolonial project,” describing neocolonialism as “…a global, political, and economic structure in which some countries continue to be exploited for raw materials and cheap labor, empowering other countries to expand their governments, armies, and control of private capital.”
Meriem Bennani’s digital series 2 Lizards (fig. 2, 2020) produced with filmmaker Orian Barki during the first weeks of COVID-19 lockdown documented the reality of quarantine and the pandemic through the disrupted lives of two lizards that would discuss the socio-political aspects of displacement, and how movement has been redefined within our “new normal.” The series also acknowledges the lizards’ privilege in being able to stay home while others deemed essential were required to brave the outside world when little was known about the highly contagious virus. Here, the ability to stay at home, safe from the pandemic, is viewed as a privilege even in the face of societal upheaval, while in Jacir’s work, the ability to return home is likewise deemed a “privilege” that can easily be revoked by neocolonial powers.
LaToya Ruby Frazier uses imagery of her hometown in Braddock, PA, to show the decay of a once-thriving industry city. Her practice investigates environmental racism, and in her photobook The Notion of Family, she emphasizes how the closing of factories in her majority-Black hometown and subsequent dilapidation of the community’s way of life are evidence of how slow violence drains vitality from a place. As noted in the exhibition catalog, this long process is what Ruth Wilson Gilmore refers to as “organized abandonment.” Similarly, Tomashi Jackson uses collage works to bring to light the inconsistencies of New York City’s “Third-Party Transfer Program,” which allows the sudden foreclosure or seizure of fully paid off properties deemed “distressed.” Developers abuse this program and disproportionately target homeowners of color, effectively depriving people of their former status of property owner. Jackson compares this present day injustice to the razing of Seneca Village in 1857, a neighborhood founded in 1825 by free African Americans that contained the highest percentage of Black property owners in New York City. Central Park was built over this former beacon of progress, a fact that has been intentionally obscured over time.
Frazier and Jackson’s work confronts the systemic deprivation that BIPOC communities face – be it loss of access to gainful employment or loss of access to owned property. It is hard to consider white supremacy independent of capitalism or neocolonialism, and in these cases, white supremacy is a direct agent in the loss of resources, a root cause of the impending displacement that follows.
Indian Act (2000-2002) by Nadia Myre was produced in collaboration with over two hundred and thirty relatives, friends, and strangers, to bead over all fifty-six pages of Canada’s Indian Act of 1876. The act allows for the Canadian government’s legislative authority to define Indigenous status and land rights, which has historically been used to obfuscate cultural, social, economic, and political aspects integral to Native society. Curator Sally Eaves Hughes explains that “Myre’s revision of the Act speaks to the ongoing realities of colonization for Indigenous communities. Moving beyond adornment to critical negation, Indian Act focuses the viewer’s attention on the collaborative and laborious rendition of the legal document as a living artifact of colonialism. The incomplete process of effacing the text speaks to the continued struggle for self-governance—a complex challenge given that any attempt to change the contents of the Act must contend with the government’s underlying framework and existing definition of Native identity… By replacing each typographic mark with a hand sewn bead, Myre’s project performs its own act of displacement. Beads, stroud cloth, paper and ink—her materials are culturally dense mechanisms that destabilize the ideological assumptions latent in the production and distribution of identity.”
Figure 5. Nadia Myre, Indian Act (Page 35), 2000 – 2002. Courtesy the artist.
The common thread throughout each artist’s work is the consideration of displacement as a critical and political uncertainty, exploring and calling out the perpetrators (individuals or groups) that carry out and benefit from the displacement of others. The exhibition is remarkably timely, bringing to light this idea of displacement independent of geography, this slow violence, that is becoming increasingly apparent in our day to day lives. Many of the constructs that perpetuate this notion of slow violence have been developing for decades if not centuries, but we are at a breaking point when all of these long-time marginalizations are coming to a head.