VAG’s Conceptions of White takes an uncompromising swing at a world that seriously needs to change

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      The conversation is still a maddeningly timely one, and in fact nothing less than essential given what we continue to see on the nightly news. Just yesterday in Ohio, mourners gathered to remember Ta’Kiya Young, a mother fatally shot in late August by police in a parking lot. As is all too often the case, Young—who was pregnant with two children at home—was Black. 

      Young was behind the wheel of her car in the shopping mall parking lot, and was accused of shoplifting. Civil right leaders from Ohio’s People’s Justice Project have called the incident another case where “property was deemed more valuable than Black life.”

      From Young to George Floyd to Rodney King to Breonna Taylor, these deaths continue to spark urgent calls for how we look at race not just in America, but around the world. And that provides a leaping-off point for the new exhibit Conceptions of White, opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery on September 9 and running to February 24, 2024. 

      Curated by Canadians John G. Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis, the exhibit’s mission statement includes the following:

      Conceptions of White is an exhibition offering context and nuanced perspectives that help viewers grapple with contemporary configurations of white identity. The exhibition examines the origins, travel, and present reality of ‘whiteness’ as a concept and a racial invention that classifies degrees of civility/humanity.

      Select historical objects and artworks illustrate white origin myths within their historical context, revealing whiteness as a North American, settler-colonial invention of the 17th century, created alongside ‘Blackness’ and ‘Aboriginality.’ The contemporary artists in this exhibition complicate this historical foundation by examining how these acts of racialization are felt today through concepts of white guilt, anxiety, supremacy, benevolence, fragility, and power.

       If that makes it sound like you need a master’s degree in multiple faculties to even begin to make sense of Conceptions of White, it shouldn’t. 

      The exhibit starts with visitors stepping through Robert Morris austere 1964 sculpture “Portal”, which acts as (and looks like) a freestanding door frame. A white door frame.

      From there, Conceptions of White tackles the issue of “whitness” with artists working with everything from iconic Greco-Roman sculptures to outdated postcards to high-tech digital screens. 

      In “Love and Loss in the Milky Way”, New York artist Fred Wilson contrasts lily-white objects—teacups, milk glass, china—with a Black-caricture cookie jar. 

      Los Angeles’ Ken Gonzales-Days flashes back to one of the grimmest periods in American life with manipulated photos of mob-hangings in the US with his “Erased Lynchings” series. 

      In Jennifer Chan’s “Aryan Recognition Tool”, visitors use facial recognition software that “superficially determines how Aryan” they are by comparing their features to senior members of Nazi Germany’s senior SS officers.

      Sound thought-provoking, uncompromising, unflinching, and designed to challenge in the most progressive of ways? Considering where things are at—still!—today, that’s exactly the point.

      Watch here for a walk through. 

      Conceptions of White

      When: September 9 to February 24, 2024

      Where: Vancouver Art Gallery