Reflections from paneling at NEMA’s “Museums and the Travel Ban” at the Davis Museum

NEMA’s Margaret Middleton invited a panel of color experts followed presentation by the curators of the “Art-Less: The Davis without immigrants” exhibit on how the exhibit happened from conception to opening.

Here we are >>

Anni Pullagura (PhD candidate at Brown U. She writes about empathy in visual culture), Roya Amigh (Persian painter and installation artist), and myself.

While museum’s intention was certainly well-meaning on the surface, the impact of the exhibit is important to assess. How was the exhibit in solidarity with the opposition to the travel ban? or undocumented workers?

Firstly, there’s a conflation of the people affected by the travel ban (which itself was a broadly sweeping islamaphobic move (conflating islam on all people of targeted countries) with undocumented workers here (further, unacknowledged during the presentation was the subtitle to Art-Less: “The Davis without immigrants” which came from “A Day without a Mexican” organizing in LA), which serves to sweep two very different and important immigration battles together without due criticality expected of cultural institutions. In fact, it is symptomatic of institutional erasure for the purposes of viral attention. The well-meaning intention thus begins to show negligence carelessness and callousless to the very hard realities of impacted people’s lives here. It begins to show itself as the publicity stunt it ended up being. It’s an artless trick at best. I will concede it may have drawn people who might be art patrons to the grassroots strike efforts by undocumented workers as it ran at the same time. As this was not discussed during the museum’s discussion, clearly it was a happy accident and not intentional. If intentional with the proper messaging more impactful work could have been engaged.

Related point. Grassroots organizations have to relentless organize against all odds to get messaging out while museums have the benefit of cultural sanction. If the museum was really advocating for human rights, this could have been done differently. Grassroots organizations have tight turn-around times and shoestring budgets. They must organize brilliantly. They cannot afford not to. Cultural institutions do not have to meet that kind of accountability and are in fact designed to resist it. So if a cultural institution takes on social justice, they need to do better. Always. Build relationships with community so during moments when there is a need for response, community culture workers can be called in to advise and be properly compensated.

This brings me to my second thought: for an elite private university seated at the heart of new england better homemaking, the appropriation of the grassroots call for immigrants to strike is incredibly disingenuous. To be in true solidarity, such museums would need to deconstruct and commit to dismantling settlerism as first immigrant mythology and how the legacy of that mythology is directly connected to white people overwhelmingly voting 45 into office that led to the ban in the first place.

Roya dropped the mic with the concluding comment to the Director:”You said how painful it was to deinstall the art in the gallery, imagine having to deinstall your life.”


Screen shots from Davis insta account. Last image worth noting.

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