“It feels impossible to talk about race or other kinds of difference,” wrote Roxane Gay recently in the New York Times Sunday Review. “But if we don’t have difficult conversations, we will be able to reconcile neither this country’s racist past nor racist present.”
This is a refrain we read and hear so often these days, and yet, the conversations remain hard in coming. Faheem Majeed, in his first solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this year, is a notable example of conversation between artist, curator, and museum institution that seeks to expand that conversation with a wider viewing public. The conversation that Majeed—who lives and works on Chicago’s South Shore—would like to have in his show at the MCA—on Chicago’s affluent Gold Coast—is one that looks to his own neighborhood as an entry point into questions of how community engagement on the institutional level can get a large and diverse group to talk openly about systemic racism and economic disparity. The wall text that greets the viewer upon arrival at his exhibition makes this intention clear: “The artist also asks the MCA, as host of his exhibition, to reflect on the ways that the museum is a shared social space—how and for whom.”
In a free booklet available to museum-goers, curator Steven Bridges describes Majeed’s practice: “the artist transforms commonplace materials—such as particleboard, scrap metal and wood, discarded signs, and billboard remnants—breathing new life into these often overlooked and devalued materials.” The particleboard sculptures and plaster casts in Majeed’s exhibition at the MCA reference issues of racial inequity and “economic disenfranchisement.” In confronting these powerful works, and reading the accompanying wall texts, the viewer is forced to engage with “the social and political efficacy of what it means to care.” Susan Pearce, in Interpreting Objects and Collections, has described the experience of encountering objects in a museum space similarly, writing of how they “affect us, both individually in the dialectic creation of meaning and self, and socially in the ideological creation of unequal relationships. Better understanding in both these modes bring discontent, since it is seldom comfortable to know more either about one’s self or about one’s position in the world, but equally, understanding is a liberating project, even though forever bound in self-related subjectivity. So tension is generated, and it is precisely for these reasons that authors write narratives, museums collect objects and display them, people visit galleries, and we all construct our explaining stories from what we see, read and remember.” Herein lies the potential power of the museum, and a show like Majeed’s: to push us out of our comfort zone and engage not only with our own self, but to take account of the ways we impact this earth and our fellow humans on it.
Majeed joins a long history of artists who have used the gallery space as a way of forcing viewers to confront difficult subject matter head on in an ostensibly sterilized environment. In the 1920s, the Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky described his theory of exhibition design as one that favored an arrangement of objects that engaged the public in social activism: “If on previous occasions, the viewer marching past the picture-wall was lulled by painting into a certain passivity, now our design should make the man active. This should be the purpose of the [exhibition] room.” Lissitzky was able to put this theory into practice at the famous Film und Foto exhibition that originated in Stuttgart in 1929, where he, alongside other contemporary artists living in Germany, such as László Moholy-Nagy and John Heartfield, were given their own rooms to curate. Heartfield, too, used his room to activate visitors. He is perhaps best remembered today for his blatantly pro-Communist, anti-Fascist photo-montaged covers for Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Worker’s Illustrated Magazine), work he was forced to continue in exile in Prague after the Nazi take-over. As Andrés Mario Zervigón wrote last Fall in October, Heartfield’s “ideal viewer” was “one who rambled, looked, and fell into a rage.”
But while the museum as institution does have a long tradition of public engagement and exchange, especially when it creates a space for artists to agitate, it also has a reputation for being an inaccessible space, the gatekeeper of the canon that welcomes only those with some sort of socioeconomic and/or intellectual entry point. Around the country, at places like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis or the Hammer Museum at UCLA, and the MCA, there is an increasing effort made by art museums to engage the local communities they directly serve, to make visible the ways in which museum collections are made more relevant when shared with a larger and more diverse public. Again in his booklet for Majeed’s show, Bridges addresses the imperative for the museum to think seriously about who it has passively and actively excluded, and how: “Diversity in the arts—specifically racial diversity—has become an increasingly contentious point of discourse (contentious too for its lack of public debate). Again, Majeed opens up space for discussion, penetrating the supposed neutrality of the public space and raising a number of questions: Who is this space for? Who is welcome here? Who feels at home in this place? What real or imagined barriers exist to prevent a sense of belonging? And where did such barriers come from, for what purpose, and to what end?”
More than finding answers to these questions, the point of Majeed’s show is to force us to ask them of ourselves, so that a dialogue may open up and continue. I participated in one such conversation with the artist and curator as a member of the inaugural Humanities Without Walls workshop, in which we sat together inside Majeed’s piece, Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden. In the accompanying wall text, it is described as a wooden “large-scale sculpture” meant to reference the South Side Community Art Center (at which Majeed was the Director for many years). Majeed describes the piece as quite literally “browning the white cube” of the museum space: the installation is meant to “challenge the idea that the gallery—or ‘white cube’—is a neutral space removed from daily life.” In our discussion, Majeed prioritized creating the room for dialogue—or “activating the space”—over reaching resolution. Even if we aren’t able to come round to another’s point of view, he suggested, the fact that a dialogue was possible (especially when, as Gay wrote, “it feels impossible”) is itself a success. That was important to hear, in a moment when myself and, I sense, so many around me are desperate to have this conversation, and yet so fearful of not getting it right.
And that’s not to say this is a conversation that does not beg for real results. For if we’d had this dialogue—on systematic racism in the United States, and the violence it wreaks—a lot earlier, many lives would have been spared. But I also know I need to be engaging in a hell of a lot more than a conversation, having arrived as a white girl at this roundtable hundreds of years late. In the Washington Post, Mervyn Marcano of Ferguson Action has called for white people to “be complicit in dismantling racist structures by taking risks, putting your bodies on the line in the streets, sharing access to resources (and releasing agency over them), living in some discomfort with difficult conversations in collaboration, knowing when to listen and organizing other white folks.” The conversation is there in Marcano’s words as well, but he also pushes us, just as Majeed does, to go outside our comfort zone and take action that questions and conversation inform. Majeed’s work inspires and pushes us to move beyond that passive viewer El Lissitzky dismissed to one made active in a fight that affects us all. Bridges puts it as such: “to open up a space for congregation and conversation is not the same as congregating and conversing. The artist cannot accomplish these things on his own.”
So let us take the conversation outside the safe space of the museum, or our home, or the confines of our closest friends, and raise our voices loud together until we see the fact that #BlackLivesMatter enacted in social and political reform. For, as Bridges concludes: “There are no straightforward answers to these questions, but certainly that is the point. And to consider them deeply, meaningfully, first one must care.”
“BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Faheem Majeed” is on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago through August 16th.
Featured image: “United,” by Faheem Majeed, photo courtesy of the author. Inset images: installation view of “BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works,” courtesy of mcachicago.org.