Joe Scanlan Project - Racial and Identity Challenges in Contemporary Art

August 16, 2015

The never-ending discourse of racial issues in our society keeps lurking in the background of almost every cultural aspect. Sometimes it is subtle and underlined, and other times it is blatant and outrageous. Joe Scanlan wanted to explore the way we perceive the artist and their work, through a project exploring the race and identity challenges in contemporary art. So, where does it all come from? Prejudice is, after all, a universal trait. Why we prejudge others is linked to our ancient survival instinct which required humans to make momentary decisions when assessing the situational threat. Haven’t we evolved enough to overcome and process such genetic heritage in a more suitable manner? Perhaps these issues are too cumbersome to be answered simply, even though they shouldn’t be. Let us see what happens when a sort of an experiment is conducted where an artist’s work is flagrantly racist, but wrapped well enough in the context of contemporary art and willful white idiocy to achieve the status of a work of a genius, or at least that’s how some people perceived this controversial stunt by Joe Scanlan.

Richard Pryor and Donelle Woolford

Whitney Biennial is one of the most prestigious group shows in the United States, and among the 100 featured artists in the 2014 edition, was the name of Donelle Woolford. At the time, Woolford was presented as an African-American female artist, with nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary about her. People familiar with stand-up comedy and the work of Richard Pryor recognized Woolford’s homage performance at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Richard Pryor created a notorious television segment in 1977 for NBC, where he felt restrained by the network’s officials and decided to let them have a piece of his mind. “See, white folks take everything from me,” was his opening line of the show that had him censored so many times just so he would be more ‘’acceptable’’ for prime time TV. The exact same line was repeated several times by Donelle Woolford in her reenactment of the Pryor’s routine, with her performance cleverly titled Dick’s Last Stand. But, what was such a problem that caused the Black artists group Yams Collective to withdraw from the Whitney Biennial? Perhaps it was the fact that the woman onstage that night was not Donelle Woolford as represented, but actually an actress portraying the character of Donelle Woolford, by the name of Jennifer Kidwell. But, why would she hire an actress to play her, you may wonder. Well, it wasn’t she who did it, it was all a work of someone else, someone by the name of Joe Scanlan.

Who is Joe Scanlan and Who is Donelle Woolford?

Joe Scanlan is an art professor and an artist, but rest assured he is not your usual run-of-the-mill artist. With his work taking on multiple forms and media, from sculpture and design over publications, to incorporating fictional personae. Here, we’re going to focus on the latter, the elaborate use of another person to express his own artistic flow. As Scanlan recalls, the idea for his fictional character of Donelle Woolford was conceived in 2000, the name was created after the Chicago Bears football player Donnell Woolford. To explain how he even got to such a notion, the artist said that he had been making new abstract collages at the time, and had felt that the particular work would be more interesting and intriguing if someone else made them. To quote his actual words “Someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references.” Claiming that the art was the source which told him that a black female artist would bring greater meaning to these pieces, Joe Scanlan went ahead and actually created a completely fictional artist personae, through whom he portrayed his work as her own. So intricate was this project that Scanlan even trained the actress to pose as a real artist in exhibitions, interviews and public events, and not only one, but two of them! Of course, there is a long list of artists making work under pseudonyms or alter egos, but this was taking it to another level. Donelle Woolford was given a full background story, one describing her family, roots, education and the entire path to her fictional artistic career. The entire project lasted for quite a while, fooling a lot of people, until the 2014 Whitney Biennial, where their Richard Pryor bit simply pushed it over the edge.

The Aftermath

Oddly enough, after all the controversy and backlash this project produced, one of the black female actors who played Woolford, Jennifer Kidwell, openly defends Scanlan and their joined efforts. She said that at first she did not wish to be a part of such “post-colonial trash”, but after further discussion about how important the identity is to the way we receive art, Kidwell accepted to join and she wanted to challenge herself with this role. Recently, Ryan Wong, an art curator and a blogger, wrote a piece where he claims that Joe Scanlan is actually a fictional persona created by Wong, with the goal of drawing attention to racism in the world of art. Funny is the fact that this piece of satire got many people even further confused about this whole mess. Even funnier was Scanlan’s response to Wong’s article, where he said that it would have been great if someone else then wrote that they had created the character of Ryan Wong, and so on, create an inception-like story that just goes back and back...

All images used for illustrative purposes only

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