“Conceptions of White”

Where do White people come from? And where are we now? Upon viewers’ entering “Conceptions of White” at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, Jeremy Bailey’s Whitesimple, 2022, offers a satirical take on a familiar framing. As the installation’s wall-mounted tablets display AR-filtered video of its (presumably White) viewers’ faces alongside cheeky instructions to “Check privilege” and “Enjoy discomfort,” Whitesimple’s slick, start-up-style branding highlights the off-putting marketability of its Whiteness-as-privilege paradigm, particularly insofar as it values individual self-reflection (no matter how abstract or performative) over collective action. Though Bailey clearly champions a contemporary Whiteness capable of questioning itself, the work’s wry commentary also marks his (and his curators’) suspicion of one-size-fits-all strategies for resolving racial difference.

In fact, what’s most remarkable about Bailey’s work is that it doesn’t at all encapsulate the vision of White identity “Conceptions of White” presents; instead, Whitesimple is only a species of Whiteness, one example of an enormously diverse genus. For curators John G Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis, both of whom are biracial, Whiteness is less an umbrella than an archipelago—a geographically, historically and politically multi-faceted territory, which no single “White” person has ever hailed from in its entirety. Playing off a range of ideologies—liberal, critical, scientific and others—“Conceptions of White” boldly visibilizes an identity marker whose power and persuasiveness have often relied on its remaining unremarked. Bolder still, the exhibition does so without endorsing a unitary critique or alternative to Whiteness, preferring instead to trace the nuances of its topic through objective, historical detail.

Installation view, “Conceptions of White,” 2023, Art Museum, University of Toronto. This exhibition was organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina. Photo courtesy Art Museum, University of Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Centre: Hiram Powers, Model of the Greek Slave, 1943, painted PLA printed replica from 3D scan of plaster sculpture. Courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Original purchased in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson. Back: Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), 2006–2022, vinyl wall installation. Courtesy Luis de Jesus Los Angeles. Right: Nicholas Galanin, White Noise, American Prayer Rug, 2018, wool, cotton. Courtesy the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York.

Indeed, archives and artifacts make up most of the raw material employed throughout “Conceptions of White.” Research-based assemblages by Deanna Bowen and Nell Painter are integral to establishing the exhibition’s theme, while several of its most aesthetically striking inclusions are in fact reproductions of pre-contemporary artworks such as the ancient Apollo Belvedere. Bolstered by lengthy and widely sourced didactics, Hampton and O’Brien Davis’s distinctly anthropological approach is also reflected in the show’s organization, which groups Canadian, European and American perspectives into separate sections of the gallery. There’s even a documentary timeline—again categorized into Canadian, American and global events—marking notable flashpoints in the development of White identity since the 1400s.

The show’s academic presentation doesn’t prevent it from achieving evocative, subjective demonstrations of how Whiteness is produced and reproduced by the White gaze. Without question, the strongest of these is the exhibition’s centre-back room, dominated on three sides by Ken Gonzales-Day’s immersive wall installation The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), 2006–2022. Part of his “Erased Lynchings” series, Gonzales-Day’s piece reproduces a black and white photograph of a 1933 American lynching, but with the hanged bodies themselves removed from the image. While the blown-out, ghostlike silhouettes of White onlookers hover at the margins, viewers’ eyes are inevitably drawn to the black space where we imagine Black bodies suspended, at eye level and nearly life-sized, in the original photograph. This expectation creates a powerful feeling of complicity; as viewers, we actively participate in the fantasy of racial difference. And yet—and here’s where things get really interesting— the piece’s didactic panel explains that the erased figures were never Black at all, since the original photograph documented the lynching of two working-class White Southerners.

The symbolic chiasmus of Black and White in The Wonder Gaze is further amplified by Hampton and O’Brien Davis’s placement of Hiram Powers’s neoclassical sculpture The Greek Slave, 1843, whose depiction of a Caucasian woman captured by Ottoman Turks during the Greek War of Independence, 1821 to 1829, inspired debate over the relationship between race and slavery throughout 1800s America. Positioned in the centre of the room, approximately where one might project the hanged bodies of The Wonder Gaze, Powers’s work unwittingly collaborates with Gonzales-Day’s to render the harms of White supremacy intensely palpable, despite there being no non-White bodies depicted. Together the pieces reveal—through extensive, fact-rich didactics but also through viewers’ fundamental experiences of looking—that the heart of Whiteness is less a material reality than the subjective force of perceiving difference, difference that has been foisted onto an extremely diverse range of bodies over time.

Howardena Pindell, Free, White and 21, 1980, video, 12 minutes and 15 seconds. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Gift of Garth Greenan and Bryan Davidson Blue. Courtesy Art Museum, University of Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

In addition to both documenting and activating the peculiar force of the White gaze throughout history, “Conceptions of White” strives to shine a light on contemporary institutional Whiteness, although its success in this regard is more limited. Both Ryan Kuo’s animation File: A Primer, 2018, and Nicholas Galanin’s textile work White Noise, American Prayer Rug, 2018, offer exceptional critiques of White liberal institutions such as corporate bureaucracies and the American media, using visual abstraction to represent how these systems whitewash the influence of racial others via seemingly neutral aesthetic standards. Yet the message of these works often seems at odds with Hampton and O’Brien Davis’s methods. As a curatorial project, “Conceptions of White” is heavily indebted to the modern Western conception of the museum as a normative store of knowledge; this attitude is reflected, for example, in the show’s being dominated by black and white colour palettes, “clean” installation bordering on sterility and an almost scientific obsession with objective detail. The resulting blind spot is perhaps most apparent in Jennifer Chan’s web-based Aryan Recognition Tool, 2022. Conceptualized as a parody of Nazi “racial science,” the absurdity of Chan’s central conceit (quantifying viewers’ “Aryanness” by comparing their faces to those of Nazi officers) suggests a too-rigid distinction between early 20th-century science and today’s, making it difficult to recognize how White supremacy proliferates in our own contemporary knowledge systems.

Not all of the show’s artists fall into the trap of the ivory tower, however: Howardena Pindell’s juxtaposition of caricature and truth-telling in Free, White and 21, 1980; Nell Painter’s spotlighting laypeople’s responses to loaded anthropological questions in Ancient Hair, 2019; and Arthur Jafa’s enigmatic video collage of home movies and folk perspectives on race in America in The White Album, 2018, all suggest exits from the underlying Whiteness of the Western episteme. If the exhibition as a whole appears uncommitted to any of these approaches, that’s probably because its strength is less in its conviction than its breadth. Most convincingly, “Conceptions of White” demonstrates that a single exhibition isn’t nearly enough to exhaust the sheer diversity of Whitenesses it documents; contrary to the claims of Whitesimple’s fictional start-up, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Hampton and O’Brien Davis deserve praise for inaugurating that work, and for outlining how a progressive understanding of race may proceed otherwise than from the hyper-visibilization (and all too often the tokenization) of non-White bodies. ❚

“Conceptions of White” was organized by MacKenzie Art Gallery and was on exhibition from August 6, 2022, to November 13, 2022. It then toured to the Art Museum at the University of Toronto from January 11, 2023, to March 25, 2023, and later to Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, from September 9, 2023, to February 4, 2024.

John Nyman is a poet, critic and book artist of mixed European and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. He holds a PhD in Theory and Criticism from Western University.