Raid the Database 2 with Nafis White

When I was invited by A. Will Brown to curate this online exhibition, the second installment of the ongoing Raid the Database series, I knew that I had an opportunity to work creatively and experimentally. Perhaps, though, what felt more important was the responsibility to bring forward the personal issues that I explore in my own work, and to juxtapose those with the important issues I see in other artists’ work—whether they differ or align with my own—and to bring this body of knowledge to the forefront of this exhibition project. I felt this to be especially important and interesting because Raid the Database is grounded so dynamically within both mainstream art history and the history of artist-curated exhibitions and projects.

My practice as an interdisciplinary artist is deeply rooted in the struggle for equality in America. I work to advance and acknowledge this struggle by creating works that bring action and dialogue to issues that concern the human spirit, with a particular focus on African Americans in the United States amidst what I call the New Civil Rights era. My work speaks to histories of both collective and personal experience in communities that are radically and racially policed, those that are supported and divided by the omnipresence of the churning prison-industrial complex, and those that are affected by systemic and institutionalized racism that robs those who are powerless to fight oppression. More specifically, though, my work addresses trauma and oppression today. In his book Between the World and Me, 2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates, refers to the conditions many African Americans face: “In America, it is tradition to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” My work as an artist is concerned with equality, representation, access, happiness, and the wellness of disenfranchised people, and it is through this lens that I create. It is political, it is female, it is black, it is queer, and it is unapologetic.

This project finds its basis, or at least a beginning, in a thread from the original project by Warhol. During the 1969–1970 project Raid the Icebox 1 with Andy Warhol, many of the students at the Rhode Island School of Design were calling for social change and political action by protesting against the war in Vietnam and petitioning the RISD president and board of trustees to create more culturally, intellectually, and ethnically diverse faculty opportunities; they asked for more spaces for exhibiting work that did not fit the current white-cube system; and they wanted the college to offer more scholarships for people in great need, for people of color, and for local Rhode Island students. I see a great deal of connection today with the movements that took place in the United States in 1970 including the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the Anti-War movement. This exhibition aims to address these past moments with our current New Civil Rights era. In reflecting on Warhol’s challenge to the white cube and to museums in particular, and challenges past RISD students have made to their own paradigm, I was inspired to build an exhibition and experience that would simultaneously address the concerns of both Warhol and the RISD students from nearly 50 years ago, one that would answer those calls for transformation and change through selection, curating, and platforming as tools for enacting social change in the present.

For this second installment of Raid the Database, I set out to create a virtual landscape that challenges many of the current demographic norms in exhibitions and institutional displays of art. The project is separated into four relatively traditional sections, with works parsed into each that fit rather simply into that category—Landscape, Abstraction, Figurative, Text. Each section includes a selection of work from the RISD Museum’s collection and website that engages with my overall interest in protest, social justice, and the power art can play in shifting societal paradigms. More than half of the works included are by women, and most of the works are by artists of color from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I also included Rhode Island–based artists who are either from or who currently live and have their studio practices in Rhode Island. It was vital to me to ensure that LGBTQ people also had a voice within this exhibition, and so I included work from representatives of that community.

Raid the Database 2 with Nafis White includes works by Hank Willis Thomas, Mona Hatoum, Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Ray Johnson, and Tania Bruguera, to name a few. There are also two short videos that peer into the art practices of two Rhode Island–based female artists—Allison Bianco and Jessica Rosner. All of the works on view are two-dimensional, and the majority are lithographs or screenprints. I chose these mediums because they represent urgency and can be made as multiples, which hold the possibility of easily being distributed to the public. This type of word-of-mouth was and is paramount to the continued existence of free thought. In addition, many of the artists in this show directly speak to the human condition, whether through figurative work, landscape, text, or abstraction. I am interested in how visual language conveys messages and creates change, and the works presented in this project follow that trajectory.

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

Nafis White
RISD BFA 2015, Sculpture