Most artists would be happy to have a closing party thrown for their show. Not Omer Fast. On Saturday, activist groups held a protest to celebrate the end of an exhibition they deemed “racism disguised as art.” Fast’s work was an insult to native Chinatown residents being pushed out by galleries, critics argued.
Fast, an Israeli American, had remodeled James Cohan’s white-box gallery into a run-down “waiting room,” complete with cracked linoleum floors, Chinese lanterns and two busted ATMs. The artist said he wanted to create dialogue by turning the “gallery facade and interior into what they were like before gentrification.”
But activists didn’t see this as a conversation starter. They saw it as “poverty porn” and held that the show “reinforced racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have been historically projected onto Chinatown,” according to art activist group Chinatown Art Brigade.
Fast called censorship. “I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan,” he said in a statement about the protest.
Annie Tan of Chinatown Tenants Union felt the content of the show added “insult to injury” for Chinatown residents in affordable housing that have been displaced by galleries. There are 84 galleries listed on the Lower East Side Gallery map, a considerable number for the compact neighborhood.
The relationship between art and activism has long been intertwined, yet galleries are often the first to gentrify neighborhoods. Bushwick art and activist collective Mi Casa No Es Su Casa see art as a tool against gentrification, but only if artists and galleries are responsible. “We’re not saying we want all the galleries gone, we’re saying we want galleries who are involved in the neighborhood and respectful of the culture.” said Anthony Rosado, an organizer at Mi Casa No Es Su Casa.
Activist groups expressed disappointment that Fast did not simply apologize. “White supremacy will say whatever it needs to justify itself and not take responsibility,” said Rosado. He saw the artist and gallery as classic examples of “folks who think they’re liberal but are really white supremacists.” Rosado likened the situation to passing a glass of water: “The artist might have had good intentions passing the glass, but if you spill it on the way over you have to take responsibility for it and say sorry.”
For some, all of this brought to mind Dana Schutz’s controversial painting in the last Whitney Biennial. Schutz, a white artist, painted an abstracted version of Emmett Till in his casket, a black teenager lynched for talking to a white girl. While some deemed the painting racist and called for its removal, others felt that would be censorship.
For some protesters, the exhibition felt more reminiscent of the controversy that erupted when a new Crown Heights bar, Summerhill, glibly advertised its “bullet hole-ridden wall.” Or perhaps the “Macabre Suite” party where artist Lucien Smith arranged cars pocked with bullet holes. “The cultural groups that made New York are now we are made fun of erased, displaced,” said Rosado.
Marz Saffore of Decolonize This Place— a Tribeca space dedicated to anti-gentrification actions– saw it as a property ownership issue. “When a gallery comes into a community, it has to acknowledge that it has the capital to buy real estate where someone who has been in the neighborhood for years can still only afford to rent.”
“It’s not that we don’t want development, we just want to stay in the communities we’ve built.”
Tan called on galleries to use their platforms and privileges to defend the vulnerable community members by standing up for tenant rights and supporting community-led rezoning plans such as the Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan. She felt this was the least that gentrifiers could do.