w 20th st


Made By Whites, For Whites: Nick Cave at the Jack Shainman Gallery

Nick Cave’s Made By Whites, For Whites, hosted by the Jack Shainman Gallery through October 4, examines the ways in which everyday objects have been used to enforce a culture of racism throughout recent history.  It is a particularly evocative exhibit given the recent attempt of a Colorado school board to encourage a curriculum that condemns civil disobedience, key to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, as unpatriotic.

Cave, who is primarily known for his Soundsuits, first got the idea for the exhibit when he found a container in the shape of a black man’s head at a flea market labeled, simply, “SPITOON.”  He began collecting such “black inflammatory objects,” from piano stools to lawn ornaments, which served to justify segregation and civil injustices by embedding racist stereotypes in American visual culture.

In some cases, Cave presents an object hardly altered from the state in which it was found.  Wall placards describe not only the place he found it, but also the original purpose of the object.  The functional context he provides for pieces such as “Sacrifice”—originally used as a carnival ring toss—or “End Upheld”—a piano stool held up by a kneeling black man—underlines the way in which the Sambo figure was used to enforce the image of black servitude. 

But Cave does more than merely remind us of this extremely unsavory aspect of our visual past.  Surrounded by lights, electric candles, and porcelain birds, the same sambo figures that served to promote racism are re-contextualized as martyrs or saints that have endured it and shouldered its weight.  They become shrines to those who have struggled against the very racism that the images’ original makers sought to promote.

Made By Whites, For Whites, then, is a demand that we not forget that American visual culture finds in its roots some extremely problematic imagery.  It demands that this piece of American history is not brushed under the rug.  But it also provides a new way to re-dignify the images themselves through re-contextualization and reuse.

The gallery also provides free copies of White Paper, a short magazine dedicated to the exhibit that reprints Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia, originally published in The Root in June, 2013.

Made For Whites, By Whites is on display at Jack Shainman Gallery, at 513 W. 20th st, New York, NY, through October 4, 2014. 

-Aaron Mayper