Hamza Walker moved from Chicago to Los Angeles for his new role as director of the contemporary art association LAXART on Christmas Day 2016, the month after Donald Trump was elected president. The atmosphere in many arts organizations was gloomy, to say the least. Especially at this point, Walker told Artnet News in a recent phone conversation, the usual type of art exhibit didn’t seem up to the mark at the moment.
“There are characters who make art, and what are their works about? You go through art, and that’s your goal to look at the world, ”he said, summing up the usual conservation method. Instead, the approach he advocated at a staff meeting a year into his tenure was, “Let’s move art aside and just look at the world. What speaks to issues of national value? “
For him, there was a blatant answer: the downgrading of Confederate monuments, a phenomenon he never thought he would live to see. Walker conceived an evil idea: why not organize an exhibition in which, far from their places of pride, these statues could be valued not only as genocide propaganda but also as works of art? And why not invite contemporary artists to create works in response to them?
Last week, Walker officially announced that this exhibition would become reality on the new Hope and Dread podcast, hosted by Allan Schwartzman and Charlotte Burns. It is currently scheduled to open in 2023.
The first wave of downgrading, Walker points out, began after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine worshipers at the African Methodist Episcopal Church Emanuel in 2015. The following year, in response, Charlottesville, Virginia and New Orleans, Louisiana, have officially approved the removal of their monuments to the “lost cause”.
But the removal of these toxic public works of art raised a question: what to do with it? Destroy them? Leave them in place but add them in some way, for example with educational material to add context? The experts offered a wide range of imaginative suggestions. Walker thought his show might be a thoughtful way to road test a common (but sometimes vague and simplistic) response: “Put them in a museum.” (A history museum is currently considering exhibiting a monument to Robert E. Lee.)
Much like a Hollywood movie sometimes needs a big name to get the nod, Walker felt he would need a co-host with the power of a star to make his plan come true. At the meeting where he proposed the show, he said, he added, “I think we have to do it with Kara Walker.”
“My staff just looked at me,” he said. “It was so obvious it was almost stupid. You could almost miss it. Knowing Walker (unrelated) for years, he was able to get him on board quickly, then secure seed funding from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation and secure a place: the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Little has gone so well since then, although the series’ relevance has only grown. In the summer of 2017, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville for a pro-monument rally that turned out to be deadly. This propelled the issue in global consciousness to a new level, especially when, during a press conference, Trump did not condemn the rioters and even offered them encouragement. And, while successive waves of monument removals have given Walker an ever-growing list of potential show loans, it has also made his project much more sensitive., leading him to keep it a secret.
However, to ask authorities to loan their overturned monuments, Walker had to disclose details of his planned exhibition. In these proposals he named artists and works that might be appropriate, but before approaching the artists themselves. After these proposals were presented in public meetings, they were disclosed before a checklist was finalized. (Awkward!) In interviews, Walker declined to name the participating artists.
But the biggest problem arose in securing the monuments in the first place.
“Who is the steward of the object?” ” He asked. “Is this the town hall? If so, do they want to make this decision? Maybe it’s, “We’ve taken things apart, but who’s going to take care of it?” We have come to a point where places are still trying to figure this out. You can have progressive forces at the town hall but conservative forces at the historic preservation committee ”, or vice versa.
The question of property is one that is not resolved only on the streets, as in Charlottesville, but also in the States. North Carolina, for example, passed a law in 2015 prohibiting the removal of Confederate monuments except under certain circumstances. Such legislation, Walker explained, has had a chilling effect as elected officials fear litigation. At times, he said, it seemed like it would be easier to borrow a piece of a cathedral from Italy (a country notoriously protective of its cultural heritage) than to stage the show on which he works.
But he didn’t give up.
“It’s quite engaging,” he says, with an ironic note, “to work on something that takes place in real time”.
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