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White Skin, Black Masks

Originally on view at Chisenhale Gallery in London, England, Autoportrait is a film, in four reels, of Diamond Reynolds, who was thrust into media attention when her partner, Philando Castile, was killed by a police officer and Reynold’s video footage of the event went viral. For the duration of Luke Willis Thompson’s black and white film, Reynolds is seen sitting in silent contemplation, gazing towards the ground.

When I first learned of Thompson’s Autoportrait, the artist’s name did not mean much to me. Initially, I thought that perhaps he was related to Hank Willis Thomas, but a quick Google search corrected that idea, prompting me to look closer at Thompson’s earlier work. My search led me to Thompson’s photographic series, We people who are darker than blue, and a repurposed minstrel statue, called Yaw. I thought this was unusual subject matter for a New Zealander, as it is such culturally specific material. These works reference both the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans (the latter piece) and subsequent cultural and musical resistance to it (the former), besides which, the statement of the work was unclear. Nonetheless, I gave the artist the benefit of the doubt until I was able to view Autoportrait, in person for myself.

As I stood in the gallery, I felt a deep unease in the pit of my stomach and left the gallery after my viewing to take some time to gather my thoughts. Shortly after, my friend and colleague arrived, and I re-entered the space with her to view the piece for a second time. We left in silence, speechless, trying to make sense of the unnerving emotion that we shared. We took a walk to the nearest coffee shop to reflect, decompress and spent several hours discussing the heavy, complicated feelings this work left us with.

I later recalled that I had actually come across Thompson’s work before, although his name hadn’t registered at the time. It was at the 2015 New Museum Triennial in New York City. Thompson staged a performance piece – a guided tour from the museum to various sites of brutality, injustice and struggle around the city, led by Black actors. By this time, Black Lives Matter had truly exploded onto the public consciousness, perhaps before many of us started becoming numb or even indifferent to the endless onslaught of viral videos of Black people (primarily American, although not exclusively) being killed. Thompson intentionally played with the visibility of the performance’s author, allowing audiences to assume that they were being led by the creator of the work.

This is not the first time that Thompson’s work has explored racial violence. Misadventure (2012) is a ready-made piece concerned with the murder of a Maori teenager who had tagged garage doors in an Auckland suburb and was subsequently chased and killed by a white homeowner. Thompson exhibited these garage doors in a gallery; they were later acquired by the Auckland Art Gallery.  Admittedly, I’m not in the habit of immediately looking at the identity of an artist of course, but I was cautious of another non-Black or white artist taking up a subject matter like that of Autoportrait given the well-documented public criticism of artists such as Dana Schutz and Brett Bailey’s exploitation of Black pain and suffering in the world and in the public eye. It is important and relevant to be aware that Thompson is a white-passing New Zealander, albeit with Fijian heritage.  For his part, Thompson has at different times identified as ‘politically Black,’ a nonsensical theoretical categorization that is particular to the UK, wherein people of color who are not of African descent identify as Black in the name of racial solidarity. “Political Blackness” emerged in the 1970s among African-Caribbean and Asian migrants in Britain organizing against racist policies at all levels of society.

To categorize all ethnic minorities in this country as “Black”—while it may have held collective political power— is, in fact, a disservice to the different communities represented within the term, resulting in a homogenizing effect. This classification has led to an erasure, particularly, of Black women in these movements and glosses over existing anti-Black sentiments. More recently, a Tate statement explains that Thompson “does not identify as white, he is originally from New Zealand, of Polynesian heritage and is mixed race.” Thompson claims to reframe histories of violence through his practice, and has stated an interest in bodies “readymade for violence,” a bizarre framing that is at best, inaccurate when the white violence enacted, both state and individual, is conspicuously absent from the work, leaving only the results of it—Black death—with the viewer.

A 2016 review of his work in Artforum International states that he “makes a habit of walking a fine line between excavation and exploitation: mining objects and situations loaded with personal and cultural history and redeploying them in partially obscured situations that nonetheless leave him in complete, if absent, control.” The review referred to his work about Chinese indentured laborers in Fiji, as well as Misadventure, subjects with which he undoubtedly has a closer relationship. Thompson has long-since crossed that line with Autoportrait and other works which fixate on the Black American experience of racialized police brutality — perhaps the most ‘familiar’ due to its hypervisibility in global mainstream and social media. Since his arrival in London in 2016, Thompson’s interest has also turned to state violence in Britain, leading him to produce Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), two silent portraits of Brandon Groce and Graeme Gardner, the grandson, and son, respectively of Cherry Groce and Joy Gardner.*

Although the majority of the recent focus on Thompson’s work has been about Autoportrait, less has been said about his film _Human, also included in the Turner Prize exhibition. _Human is a close study in film of My Mother, My Father, My Sister, My Brother (1996-7), a sculpture made by Donald Rodney shortly before his death. The tiny sculpture depicts a house made of Rodney’s own skin, removed during one of many operations, and held together by dressmaker pins. Rodney suffered from Sickle Cell Anaemia which led to his untimely passing in 1998. His work was intimately connected to the experience of his illness—meditating on more metaphorical ideas of disease within broader social and political contexts— as well as that of being a Black man in Britain. In Thompson’s _Human, the sculpture is shot at close range and at an aerial view, to the point of abstraction. We are looking at Rodney’s skin, the remains of a real person who is no longer with us, however, it is rendered almost completely devoid of meaning and context, other than a few sentences on the text panel at the entrance to the screening room. The power in the original piece was its profoundly personal, yet universal ability to speak meaning about the fragility of human life. The irony of  _Human  is its own ability to dehumanize Rodney, neutralizing his work, and centering Thompson, who used a score generated by his own genetic code sequenced in a technical program to edit the film. Thompson as the auteur becomes the human who is recognized and exhibited in the Tate. Donald Rodney did not get this opportunity with his own work; all the pieces by him in the Tate collection were acquired long after his passing. This is a slow violence, reenacted and reinscribed over and over again, wherein an artist of a lesser caliber not only acquires, exploits and recontextualizes a deceased artist’s work and actual flesh, but is celebrated and rewarded for it.

There is no doubt that the currency of Autoportrait is in the image of the Diamond Reynolds herself. Thompson frequently refers to Reynolds as his collaborator, yet aside from her image, her voice is curiously absent from the piece. In two of the four film reels, a close up on Reynolds’ face in profile, we see Reynolds’ lips move and head move as she sings or raps to an unknown song. There is no audio. In this video, Reynolds is silenced. Under Thompson’s direction, her eyes are averted from the camera, looking towards the ground. At one point, she steals a solitary glance towards the camera—what bell hooks would describe as the oppositional gaze—reminding us that “the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency.” It is important to remember that although we have not heard from Reynolds, she did indeed consent to work with Thompson who claims that this work was conceived “as a way of giving her back control of her image and grief.” And surely her participation could be understood as an exercise in agency—an opportunity to reframe her own legacy following the brutal and traumatic way in which she was thrust into the public sphere.

However, this possibility of agency or control does not erase an imbalance of power and access between a Black victim of police brutality** and a non-Black artist with the resources and support of an institution, as well as the air of prestige that association with the art world commands. By his own admission, Thompson “went through friends, unnamed collaborators, eventually through her lawyers. There was a long back and forth to ‘build up trust’ with the lawyers before Diamond was involved in the conversation.” The artist’s desire to make contact and to produce this work overrode any ethical consideration for a woman immersed in grief for the violent death of her partner, and the stress of a very public legal case.

This grief garners different reactions depending on the viewer. The isolation of aesthetic qualities without having to engage with implications of the reality of the conditions that created it can be seen as simply a way for the art world to tap into the rhetoric of the current political climate and to respond to criticisms regarding diversity, representation, and increasingly frequent calls for “decolonization.”

Yet, it remains a voyeuristic exercise in exploring oppression through the intrusion on a Black woman’s grief, without meaningfully conveying how the audience is complicit, both in the spectacle of the artwork, but also in the global, economic and political systems that create these positions. Thompson recreates familiar hierarchies, where he as an artist from a socially and economically privileged background is able to present Diamond Reynolds as a collaborator and yet silence her at the same time. She is present, but she does not speak. Supporters may cite that the audience connects with the work on a human, emotional level, however, I would argue that a false consciousness is created: the viewer at best feels that their emotional connection negates their participation in systems of racial inequality. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have written on the fallacy of the empathic response in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media:

A person might “sample” oppression and conclude nothing more than: ”C’est la vie” or “Thank God it wasn’t me!” The point is not merely to communicate sensations but rather to advance structural understanding and engagement in change.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag states,  “there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.”

If the sharing of images of the actual death or atrocity can be justified in order to raise awareness, the act of witnessing must hold a level of ethical responsibility. So then, what reasoning can we extract when an artist deftly avoids the use of violent imagery, yet at the same time mines the pain and death from a historically oppressed community for artistic purposes? Thompson explains that he made the conscious decision to watch police brutality videos that were circulating online, not dissimilar to the ways in the 19th and 20th centuries when lynching photographs were physically circulated among both white and Black communities, for the former as a form of fascination or entertainment, and to strike fear into the latter.

Autoportrait has garnered not only praise but has won the 30-year-old several prestigious prize nominations. The first being the 2018 Deutsche Boerse Photography Prize, which he won along with a £30,000 monetary award. It is unclear whether this will be evenly shared, if at all, with his collaborator, Diamond Reynolds. He was also recently nominated for the Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious contemporary art award. Neither prize has a particularly good track record when it comes to actually nominating or awarding Black artists.

What is so commonplace to the point of banality about Thompson, and other artists making this type of work, is their focus on the suffering Black body. A society that sees only Black bodies – a phrase that has gained currency in recent years – and ignores Black humanity is an extension of the objectification of Black people. A body is an object to be viewed. An object has currency. An object can be used. An object is a means to an end. An object does not and cannot have agency. Political Blackness may have had some sort of validity as far as organizing during the Thatcher years, but it clearly failed if the result is a homogenizing multiculturalism that is a box-ticking exercise, erasing specific types of injustice and oppression that different groups face. It is absolutely possible to organize together in solidarity without claiming a Black identity. Ultimately, if the achievement of political Blackness is that an artist such as Thompson can make this kind of work about the death, suffering, and grief of people of African descent, then the entire project is a failure for this day and age.

There is a serious lack of critique and of critical thinking around not only Autoportrait and _Human but Thompson’s entire body of work, and the machinations of how it has come to be so celebrated. As always, the issue is never about a single problematic artist, but that there is an entire industry and framework allowing an artist’s career to continue to flourish by making exploitative work. There is a deep disconnect between the almost unanimous praise that Thompson has received by institutions and critics alike, and the criticisms “on the ground,” in hushed tones of disapproval at gallery parties, loud condemnation at private gatherings and pointed, concise critiques on social media.

The few Black individuals in the art world who have co-signed Thompson from their institutional position of security certainly do not reflect the conversations, hurt and anxiety that have been expressed by many Black artists, audiences and ordinary people who do not have either the platform to express this, or the job security to do so without repercussions. But those murmurs are getting louder and cannot be ignored; a critical essay by Rene Matic, a member of BBZ, was published on Gal-Dem following the announcement of Thompson’s nomination in May. At the opening of the Turner Prize exhibition, a number of members of the same collective took to the gallery space to protest Thompson’s inclusion, wearing t-shirts stating: BLACK PAIN IS NOT FOR PROFIT. These are just a few of the voices critiquing the ethics of Thompson’s nomination and I anticipate that there will be more to come. Many art organizations still think it is a radical and political statement to exhibit work by a non-Black artist about Black suffering from a so-called objective point of view than to offer opportunities to Black artists to speak on their own experiences. Our voices may be outside of the mainstream narrative and not widely heard, but we must continue to bear witness and refuse silence.


*Cherry Groce was shot by police, and as a result paralyzed, in Brixton in 1985. Joy Gardener was killed in police custody in London in 1993.

**Reynolds is a victim by proxy. She may not have been killed, but she suffered the traumatic consequences of witnessing the killing of her partner, stating that she and her daughter have been left scarred for life.


Aurella Yussuf is a writer, curator and art historian specializing in Africa and the African Diaspora. She is a founding member of Thick/er Black Lines, a London-based interdisciplinary research collective.

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