Raid the Database 2 with Nafis White

Raid the Database 2 with Nafis White is the second in a series of artist-curated digital exhibition projects inspired by the RISD Museum’s historic exhibition Raid the Icebox 1 with Andy Warhol (1969–1970). Each project in the Raid the Database series takes shape as the artist works closely with RISD Museum staff to gather materials, navigate the Museum’s database and website, and delve into the original Raid the Icebox exhibition. These projects are not meant to be digital facsimiles of the original Raid the Icebox, but experiments that engage the idea of the artist as simultaneously both curator and producer, grounded by the rich and at times confounding documents, images, ideas, relationships, and contextual clues surrounding Warhol’s 1970 exhibition at the RISD Museum.

This second project in the Raid the Database series is by Nafis White, who recently received a BFA in sculpture from RISD and is currently an MFA candidate at Goldsmith’s University, London. White is a mixed-media artist who works in video, sculpture, photography, installation, and performance. In conjunction with her artistic work, White also has curatorial experience with projects in California’s Bay Area and in Providence. Her work is rooted, broadly, in an exploration of the human condition as it relates to the struggles for equality that ethnic minorities and LGBTQ communities in America are faced with. For example, in 2014 White began an ongoing series titled Phantom Negro Weapons. The body of work is a series of photographs that document everyday objects—a package of Skittles, a leather belt, a can of iced tea—that were in the possession of African Americans and mistaken as weapons by police, who subsequently took up deadly force against those carrying them. As more violent actions by police against unarmed minorities are covered—and at times covered up—in the news media, White continues to create new work in response. She is deeply interested in art’s capacity to enact narratives of social change. Phantom Negro Weapons is just one example of her direct yet poetic approach to exposing untold, often obfuscated, details and stories.

Like artist Natalja Kent (who created for Raid the Database 1 with Natalja Kent), Nafis White was given access to the RISD Museum’s digital database, which contains a vast number of images and documents about the Museum’s collection of nearly 100,000 objects—from collections of contemporary art, ancient art, decorative arts and design, asian art, costume and textiles, painting and sculpture, and prints, drawings, and photographs. Where Kent took a profound interest in images of the RISD Museum’s conservation and installation practices, White found specific works of art from the Museum’s collection captivating, enough so to highlight them through a more traditional curatorial lens in her project. What sparked White’s selection of these artworks was a trip to the Fleet Library Special Collections and Archive with archivist Andrew Martinez, an expert on the original Warhol exhibition. Presented with a selection of letters, ephemeral materials, official museum correspondence, contracts, and forms, White was drawn to a group of photographs from Warhol’s visit to Providence, in which he is standing in proximity to RISD students in the midst of a protest. The materials of interest from the archive also included a number of original and facsimile copies of student-made protest posters. In 1970, a host of RISD students were simultaneously protesting the Vietnam War and petitioning for the RISD administration to create more scholarships and faculty positions for both minorities and Rhode Islanders. Through her examination of the archive and the RISD Museum’s collection, White saw a few important areas of crossover between 1970 and today. A recent strike by RISD technicians that many RISD students took part in seemed similar to protests by past RISD students on behalf of local artists and minorities. She also saw the overlap with the continuing (yet now digital and news-media-heavy) struggle for civil rights in America. Further, White was taken by Warhol’s efforts to subvert the white-cube gallery and museum system by selecting rarely displayed objects from the RISD Museum’s collections that captured his interest for their sheer aesthetic qualities, and that when juxtaposed with one another would appear as a bizarre combination of old, new, significant, and commonplace. Warhol, as White’s writing and her project allude, took the traditional concept of museological display and flipped it on its head, just enough to elicit critical attention. In museum’s there is normally a distinction made between storage and exhibition, between gallery and back of house, but Warhol sought to dissolve these distinctions and present materials that seemed more arbitrary, to in turn, criticize and simultaneously make the viewer aware of just how subjective and haphazard some late 19th century collecting and mid-20th century storage practices could be. While certainly not the case now, there was a time when the RISD Museum and many others like it held collections in aging and somewhat overfilled storage facilities and Warhol brought this and a new kind of curatorial style, the display of the formerly archival or collected but not seen, into the light.

The capacity for works of art and exhibitions, across media, to be instruments or representations of protest and social activism has been a long-running current in the history of art, and is one that continues. Francisco Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 in Madrid (1814), which depicts the murder of Spanish freedom fighters—rebels—by French soldiers; the International Dada Exhibition, held at Galerie Otto Burchardt in Berlin in 1920, which used mixed-media collage, assemblage, and installation to critique both the German government and police; Joseph Beuys’s 7,000 Oaks (1982), the mass planting of sapling oak trees, which began in Kassel, Germany, at Documenta VII and ended after the artist’s death in 1986; and the arrest of Tania Bruguera in the spring of 2015 by Cuban police after a performance in which she read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism as part of her ongoing project, the Hannah Arendt International Institute for Artivism. These are just a few examples, and undoubtedly there are innumerable others in which artists have engaged provocative language, imagery, and action to offer social and at times aesthetic critique to enact pathways for expanded thinking and potential change in society.

Importantly, art is not always and shouldn’t necessarily be saddled with the imperative of being political. For Raid the Database 2 with Nafis White, however, ideas of social change and cultural critique are as much the focus of this artist-curated project as they are central to White’s own practice. More specifically, White’s project brings to the fore a selection of works from the RISD Museum’s collection, and offers unique insight into them as objects that ask us to reevaluate our own positions on matters of social equitability. Above all, this iteration of Raid the Database, here more of a curatorial selection than an experimental artwork, sets a standard for looking harder and working with expanded notions of urgency and value. White’s project forces us to consider the importance and viability of art as protest, and to come to terms with the question of why, 45 years after 1970, the same core issues—including ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender-minority representation and equality, and a continued agenda of controversial foreign wars—are still problematic enough to be at the fore of American social politics.

Raid the Database 2 with Nafis White can be accessed here.

Read Nafis White’s article on the process of making Raid the Database.

A. Will Brown
Curatorial Assistant, Contemporary Art