2020-2021: Art amidst Chaos
by Rehema C. Barber · October 09, 2021
Yun-Fei Ji. The nativists and immigrants, 2021 Ink and watercolor on paper, 30 x 27 1/2 in. © Yun-Fei Ji 2021. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle.
Yun-Fei Ji. The nativists and immigrants, 2021 Ink and watercolor on paper, 30 x 27 1/2 in. © Yun-Fei Ji 2021. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Phoebe d'Heurle.

The Art Writing Workshop is a partnership between The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and AICA-USA. This program pairs ten emerging art writers with eminent voices in the field, facilitating deep critical engagement with art in regions across the US. 2020 Art Writing Workshop participants were invited to contribute a piece of writing that emerged from their work in the program for publication with AICA-USA's online magazine. What follows is one such contribution.


Beset by Chaos

There is blood everywhere. In this painting, people are being shot, stabbed, or in the process of dying. Everyone’s center of gravity is off. The only people not covered in blood are children. They clutch each other in fright and shock. This painting, Faith Ringgold’s American People Series: Die, 1967, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is an image that I’ve revisited throughout our collective exile. The series, initiated in 1963, is the artist’s response to the Civil Rights and feminist movements. The faces are deliberately mask-like, made to resemble African sculpture. Bold lines and a layered flatness featured throughout the pictorial plane suggest cubist and pop-art influences. I have only seen the work in art history books, but upon seeing it, for the first time, I was struck by the melee of people and the painting’s raw emotionality. Especially noteworthy, is the year of the painting’s origination. Created during a period of intense social unrest: two years prior to the assassination of Malcom X and then a year prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King, the painting conveys the permeating air of that era. Moreover, the work was not only timely during its day, but has remained relevant. In many ways this scene has continued to unfold throughout countless communities riddled by mass shootings, protests, and the displacement of whole neighborhoods resulting from gentrification and expanding economic disparities. And now the painting speaks to the unfolding of a global pandemic.

Now, this painting is a frequent reflection as I try to process the isolation and tumultuous social atmosphere of the last year. For me, this work is a metaphor for all the conversations, people, zoom meetings, urgent museum leadership calls, and professional support gatherings that I encountered during those early months of the pandemic. The news changed every day. My chest hurt daily--and each day I wondered if I had Covid-19. How was I supposed to lead a team that I had newly joined, less than a year prior, and that still felt quite transitional as the chaos of a pandemic unfurled around us? The news was the same—disinformation was everywhere. Who were we supposed to listen to and trust with our safety and wellbeing? Why weren’t we better prepared? Suddenly, we’re covering our faces for safety. What’s funny is that I, like countless other Black and Brown folk, wonder if wearing a mask was going to turn into a scene very much like Ringgold’s painting. Were we going to die for wearing a mask (because we presumably look like bandits ready to rob, steal, or kill) or for not wearing one? And then masks became political and fashion statements. How was I supposed to keep calm and carry on (curate)?

Sleeping with Monsters

May 2020 is marked by the death of George Floyd. Protests sweep the nation. People everywhere are seething like a kettle left on the stove too long—some are furious at the news of Floyd’s death, others because of lost jobs, and some from the strain of being isolated from friends and family. I am tired of daily emergency meetings combined with news of layoffs and postponements of major exhibitions at art institutions across the nation. I feel anxious, unsettled. At first I refuse to watch the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that was everywhere online. Finally, I succumb and watch with horror, stopping the video as soon as I hear him calling for his mother. My heart breaks and hot tears fall hard—my eyes well up even now as I recall the sound of his pleas. I question how a person can do that to another human being, but I remember Ringgold’s painting and it becomes clearer how we can bear to hurt one another. Across the nation, countless museums release statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and BIPOC communities in general. The backlash is swift and roils across the field. The truth is coming out about how people have [mis]behaved inside and outside of their institutions and I can’t help thinking about Ringgold’s painting again. It feels like a virtual and physical blood bath, a never-ending free-for-all of violence and human tragedy. The news regarding the pandemic and its death toll is bleak, and protests across the nation can’t go unnoticed How are we supposed to serve and help heal our communities in the midst of this unprecedented moment? For so long the prevailing attitude among cultural leaders has been that their institutions are spaces for healing, beauty, and inclusivity, but those claims ring hollow, especially now. There is a new generation of professionals who are unafraid to call out the disparities which have been on full display and openly flaunted. Cultural institutions around the nation are not prepared with the reckoning happening within and outside of their walls, especially when for so long they have had closets full of skeletons and monsters roaming their hallways.

Yinka Shonibare, CBE. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Asia), 2008 C-print mounted on aluminum Notes: Image size: 72 X 49.5 inches. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2021. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.
Yinka Shonibare, CBE. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Asia), 2008 C-print mounted on aluminum Notes: Image size: 72 X 49.5 inches. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2021. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.

In June, the closet doors burst open with Change the Museum. Their posts on Instagram started as a means to anonymously expose public and behind-the-scenes humiliations and workplace violations to which BIPOC museum staff have been subjected. Reading about these experiences is shocking, but any person of color that read these posts has experienced many of these situations firsthand—myself included. Scrolling through the posts from June to present, gasping for air along the way, I remembered Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1797-1799 along with Yinka Shonibare’s 2008 reinterpretation. In both, a man sits, presumably asleep, as bats, owls, and other creatures of the night hover around him. Shonibare’s version with the subtitle Asia is an intriguing reworking of Goya’s scene. The black and white print comes alive via color photography in this version. The sitter is a Black man, dressed vibrantly in Shonibare’s trademarked wax-cloth Victorian era garments, his bald head a beacon of light despite the dark scene surrounding him. Shonibare’s reimagined scene remains true to Goya’s text, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders.”

Change the Museum reveals that the monsters are both within and outside of the museum doors. Numerous professionals recount their horrific experiences:

“A 2014 exhibition at MoMA PS1 was about ‘artists who protest,’ and held a few weeks after Michael Brown and Eric Garner and has ZERO black artists. It took about a month for Klaus to add Lorraine O’Grady” (June 16, 2020).

“At the Getty Trust a female POC employee was told by a white male colleague that ‘her hair was so funky he wanted [to] take it home and play with it.’ The POC employee was later forced to not file a complaint ‘to prevent escalating the situation’” (July 2, 2020).

“The only time the museum would ever market to the Latino community and provide bilingual materials was when we had an exhibition about Latino art. And then they would wonder why our member base wasn’t ‘diverse’” (July 5, 2020).

The posts were numerous, depressing, stressful, and triggering, yet mostly unsurprising—to me. As an African American woman, the issue of hair is an especially taxing issue for me and others. Seeing posts about hair—“funky hair” brought a flood of memories recalling the times that my natural hair caused similar comments, requests to touch my hair, or even in the worst of cases unwanted and compulsive hands in my hair, without my consent or even a request to do so. These early posts trickled in, becoming a flood of open closets filled with skeletons that put on flesh and became the stories of real people. These same people who dedicated their lives to creating imaginative and thoughtful experiences for their communities, were simultaneously expected to provide healing for their audience, while simultaneously combatting the monstrosities of micro aggressions, racism, sexism, and sexual harassment. The pandemic, combined with the seemingly endless news of Black men and women being killed in the streets and in their homes, was beyond disheartening, but the surprise of museums across the nation at the resounding recoil of and response by the BIPOC community to their posts of solidarity was laughable. I, along with others, have witnessed the toll taken on BIPOC professionals by museums that have used our communities as launch pads for acquiring additional programming resources, but with no lasting, substantial engagement. All too often, we have voiced our objections saying, “we shouldn’t do…” or “this doesn’t feel authentic,” only for our words to be disregarded or publicly derided. Goya’s and Shonibare’s works illustrate how striving for so-called progress while ignoring our shared humanity can have disastrous consequences.

Swallowed, but Not Eaten

So, what are we to do in 2021, as we watch our fellow Americans storm our nation’s capital during a pandemic? What are we to do as we witness a sea of white men and women destroy property and physically assault police en masse, many of them allowed to return to the safety of their homes without fear of the repercussions until weeks later? What are we to do as people of Asian descent across the nation are physically and verbally attacked because the nation’s highest leader has called Covid-19 the “China-flu”? The capitol riots and the rise in violence against Asians in America brings me to a recent work I was introduced to while curating a Yun-Fei Ji exhibition.

Yun-Fei Ji is a Beijing born, New York based artist whose satirical works critique prevailing global power structures to consider the forced migration and willing immigration of people around the world and their resulting experiences, which are exclusionary and predicated on bias. In Ji’s ink and watercolor painting Nativists and the Immigrants, the artist presents this rising tide of intolerance and the predicament faced by anyone not representative of the dominant culture. A muted color palette combined with a mixture of humans and anthropomorphic animal forms appears at first glance light-hearted, even humorous. Surrounded by three women, a tiger-headed figure dominates the foreground, directly behind them looms an ox and a pig, both with human bodies. There is much to consider in this scene, yet my eye is repeatedly drawn to the crouching tiger figure. The magnetism of this tiger-figure almost explains how people can be unwittingly led astray by the dynamism of leaders, cultural movements, and collective opinions. But here, Ji’s figure alludes to the Confucian parable of a tyrannical government being worse than death as a tiger’s lunch. In light of this symbolism, Ji references the social ills and struggles immigrants and people of color face around the world. The artist illuminates the complex and precarious balance between assimilating for survival, navigating the unfamiliar, prevailing against societal biases, and preserving one’s individual sense of cultural identity. This last factor is especially poignant because nativists and immigrants have something in common: they are all struggling to retain their cultural identities.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Plate 43 from 'Los Caprichos': The sleep of reason produces monsters (El sueño de la razon produce monstruos), 1799,  Etching, aquatint. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of M. Knoedler & Co., 1918.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Plate 43 from 'Los Caprichos': The sleep of reason produces monsters (El sueño de la razon produce monstruos), 1799, Etching, aquatint. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of M. Knoedler & Co., 1918.

So, the larger, looming question is: how can we move forward to create a new world together and find healing? Is the answer found in unveiling that which was once hidden, recounting our stories, and baring our wounds to one another? What is clear (at least to me) is that we must be unafraid to tell the truth, and that those in power must listen now. But after listening, action must be taken. But there is no single or simple answer on how to proceed. What I do know is that we can no longer keep our heads down and carry on as usual. The path of willful ignorance only produces more monsters. We must allow ourselves to be touched by our shared humanity while also celebrating our differences. It is what makes the artworks mentioned throughout this essay so meaningful and timeless. Ji, Goya, Ringgold, and Shonibare illustrate that healing comes from bold truth-telling and acknowledgement of past and present wrongs; and it must occur collectively and publicly. So, as we emerge from our respective cocoons, I hope that we remember how traumatic this year has been for us all. While it has been filled with loss, pain, anger, and despair there will come a day that we can look back on this period with less anxiety. Despite all the negative moments of these past months, we forged new paths and ways of relating to one another. This year was also filled with hope, determination, and resilience.


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