Pancouver-Logo

Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Vancouver Art Gallery’s Conceptions of White exhibition confronts ideology of cultural erasure

Fred Wilson
Conceptions of White includes Fred Wilson's Love and Loss in the Milky Way, 2005. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York. Photo by Kyla Bailey/Vancouver Art Gallery.

B.C.’s mainstream media outlets almost never focus on whiteness. However, a new Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, Conceptions of White, just might change that.

Co-curated by John G. Hampton and Lillian O’Brien-David, Conceptions of White examines ways in which whiteness and the white race have shaped the world. According to O’Brien-David, the exhibition “offers context and nuanced perspectives to help grapple with contemporary configurations of white identity”.

The MacKenzie Art Gallery organized the art works, which include positive and negative depictions of whiteness.

It’s worth noting that the Regina gallery capitalizes “white” when describing white identity and the white race. Pancouver, on the other hand, continues using a lower-case “w” for white in accordance with Canadian Press style.

Deanna Bowen
Deanna Bowen’s White Man’s Burden, 2022 (installation at MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2022). Selected works from the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s permanent collection. Gift of the Artist. Photo by Carey Shaw.

Conceptions of White opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday (September 9) and continues until February 4, 2024. It features works by 15 artists: Jeremy Bailey, Deanna Bowen, Jennifer Chan, Nicholas Galanin, Ken Gonzales-Day, Arthur Jafa, Ryan Kuo, Michèle Lalonde, Barbara Meneley, Robert Morris, Nell Irvin Painter, Howardena Pindell, Hiram Powers, Fred Wilson, and Artist Once Known (After Leochares).

“This exhibition asks us how our history and contemporary moment have been built with the aid of mobilizing visual information, sometimes with very specific and effective ends,” Vancouver Art Gallery CEO and executive director Anthony Kiendl says in a news release.

He adds that these works of art contribute to the gallery’s history of exhibitions that “connect art to ideas in the realm of visual culture and social history”.

Co-curators Lillian O’Brien-Davis and John G. Hampton discuss themes of Conceptions of White.

Conceptions premise reinforced by scholarship

There’s a growing body of research regarding whiteness. University of Alberta scholar Beverly Lemire, for instance, investigates how “whiteness was invented and fashioned in Britain’s colonial age of expansion”. She demonstrates how this was reflected in clothing, neoclassical art, and décor.

Meanwhile, University of Toronto professor Ian Williams offers a thought-provoking contemporary examination of whiteness in his  2021 book, Disorientation: Being Black in the Modern World. One of the essays, “Ten Bullets on Whiteness”, maintains that whiteness exists as an institution. Williams notes that “we don’t always recognize the instruments it uses to uphold power”.

“Exposing the existence of whiteness is important because invisibility renders it innocent,” Williams writes. “The existence of whiteness is obvious to Black people and white people alike, but Black people are daily aware of it while white people only occasionally need be—which is advantageous to white people and deleterious to Black people.”

In the essay, he goes on to argue that whiteness centres itself; whiteness values itself; whiteness preserves itself; whiteness adapts; whiteness contradicts itself; whiteness is powerful; whiteness oppresses; whiteness takes offence; and whiteness is obsessed with Blackness. He follows each of his “bullets” with an explanation.

In the video above, Hampton says that Conceptions of White “moves through historical works that examine the foundations and origins of whiteness”. In addition, the exhibition presents works by contemporary artists who show how “acts of racialization have manifested in acts of white supremacy, guilt, and benevolence”.

Furthermore, Hampton states that this exploration of whiteness is “firmly situated within the context of the white cube, which is what contemporary art galleries are known as”.

Ken Gonzales-Day
Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park, CA, 1935), 2006–2022, vinyl wall installation. Courtesy of the Artist and Luis de Jesus Los Angeles.

Gonzales-Day exposes legacy of lynching

According to O’Brien-Davis, Wilson challenges dominant narratives by placing objects in proximity to one another. Then, the New York-based artist reconfigures them through an African-American lens.

In addition, Conceptions of White includes a photograph by Los Angeles-based artist Ken Gonzales-Day. He attracted a great deal of attention with his Wonder Gaze exhibition, which highlighted a hidden legacy of lynching in California. A significant number of people of Latin American ancestry were among those who suffered these atrocities.

O’Brien-Davis says in the video that Gonzales-Day took photographs of lynching postcards and digitally removed victims’ images. In the early 20th century, people kept them as “popular souvenirs”.

Gonzeles-Day’s book, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, documented more than 350 of these attacks in California. Some were performed in front of large audiences.

“The people in the audience may not be tying a noose,” O’Brien says, “but they are participants nonetheless. And their mere presence and inaction creates an atmosphere within which such violence is normalized and perpetuated.”

The Vancouver Art Gallery presents Conceptions of White until February 4, 2024. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

Take Action Now

Pancouver fuels creativity and promotes a more inclusive society. You can contribute to support our mission of shining a spotlight on diverse artists. Donations from within Canada qualify for a tax receipt.

Share this article

Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

Subscribe

Tags

Related Articles

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

© 2023 The Society of We Are Canadians Too Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.