I think it’s time we talk about systemic racism in the art world. Following the brilliant irony of @freeze_magazine’s recent Instagram post (in collaboration with @anders_lindseth) which showed Black Lives Matter protesters looting a KAWS exhibition at 5Art Gallery in Los Angeles, captioned: “Street art is back on the streets. Nature is returning,” people’s opinions became split. Is looting during the protests against racial injustice really “thuggery”? Or is it just another way of protesting for change and justice?
Brian Donnelly, known professionally as KAWS, is a white American male artist and designer with, in my humble opinion, too much money and attention. From an early age, Donnelly was known for marking buildings in New Jersey and Manhattan with ‘KAWS’. He soon moved on from tagging and developed a (one-trick pony) style of cartoon-like figures. Since then, despite his style remaining unchanged, the locations where his figures have been exposed certainly have, moving from the streets to ‘White Cube’ galleries and institutions. KAWS has 3 million followers on Instagram, his work sells for mind-boggling figures and his collectors include the likes of Justin Bieber. Need I say more?
In an age of Banksy and KAWS, it must not be forgotten that historically speaking, street art and graffiti’s evolution was born through black and Latino youth culture, who were often arrested for expressing themselves. Darryl ‘Cornbread’ McCray, Bryan Snyder and MICO are examples of artists and writers who were anti-elitists from the start, with Snyder arguing that “in its purest form, graffiti is a democratic art form that revels in the American Dream.” Maybe this once was KAWS’ message and mentality, but not anymore. That’s why, now, his work being looted and taken back onto the streets sends a powerful message.
Though probably unknowingly, by looting KAWS figures last week, protesters also highlighted the racism omnipresent in the gallery system. Comments on the previous Instagram post mentioned 5Art Gallery as being guilty of racial profiling and having responded in the past aggressively to any individual calling them out, allegedly telling them to “go kill themselves.”
More and more pressure like this is being put on brands and arts institutions to speak up and take part in the Black Lives Matter movement. Galleries are being asked directly what it is they are doing and called out if their answer is not enough.
Don’t get me wrong, peaceful protests are a great thing but if black people feel they need to respond with more, perhaps it should be respected as a cry for more action; more change. Yes, this post’s ironic satire is funny, but it also calls attention to the fact that white supremacy is still very much present in our gallery spaces, which is not acceptable. In a time of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests, this is the moment for the art world to stand up and take responsibility for its history.
Nature is healing, racism is the real virus, street art is returning. It’s up to the art world now to accept its part in systemic racism and start acting like it actually wants to see things change. If it doesn’t, surely more looting is to be expected.