Colorizing The Impact: Whitney Museum, NYC

Image/Whitney Museum of American Art

Image/Whitney Museum of American Art

Hudson Yards — a place where rich white America feels richer and poor colored America feels poorer. 

When I first stepped out of the musky and congested train station into the sounds of honking cars, lively conversations, and bass-boosted shouting from street vendors, I automatically realized where I was: Manhattan (otherwise known as the manufactured, high-rise heart of the city). Construction workers barking out commands alongside the gravely sounds of concrete slabs being ground to a pulp with jackhammers rattled the sidewalks, almost mingling with the sounds of hotdogs — most likely left outside without supervision for too long — languishing in cholesterol whilst sizzling on a grill. The onomatopoeia mixture of urban revitalization clashing with “cultural” norms bought both a sense of trepidation and ambivalence to my attention; while reformation and reconstruction appear to be nothing new (and, in fact, necessary for economic and social growth), one cannot help but feel as if urbanization has become reinvented in the name of gentrification. 

People of color have continuously been left behind in the rest of America’s march towards progress. We are forced to endure de facto segregation through unchecked institutions such as redlining, unequal wealth distribution, systematic racism, and disproportionate school quality in order to keep us sheltered, unresponsive, and “unaware” of the possibilities that wait to be seized through the fruits of industrialization, modernization, and revitalization. When it comes to political activism, specifically the facet that involves urban renewal and the disenfranchisement of people of color due to biased housing/entrepreneurial policies, we have been forced to advocate for ourselves without the support or “megaphoning” of privileged allies. Looking at the bodegas, empty businesses, and dissatisfied street vendors reminded me of this; while it may say in our Constitution that each member of our society is guaranteed inalienable liberties and rights, it remains true — even in the contemporary era — that race relations and the racialization of social marketing/entrepreneurship has wreaked irreversible havoc and destitution amongst hard-working people of color, leaving nothing but unsettling silence in the wake of disregarding their rights.

However, one instance in which I felt like my perspective was validated — even championed — was during our tour of the Whitney Museum. When our bubbly tour guide Jackie took us through the Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s exhibition, I felt a sense of pride welling within my chest; an emerging generation of artists of color and women who looked and thought just like me had explored color’s capacity to articulate new questions about perception, (specifically its relation to race, gender, and the coding of space) through saturated and near-hallucinatory depictions of “contemporary” history (and well-elucidated criticisms on racial politics) that had been immortalized in those very halls. This pride turned into beaming confidence when we sat down in a circle and analyzed Frank Bowling’s Dan Johnson’s Surprise; the painting showed three images of South America in a painterly wash that suggests an expanse of ocean. The room was pin-drop silent, save for my murmured musings to my friend Rina about how this piece could be a critique on immigration and how it has “weathered down” the appeal of South American countries. Jackie, however, wouldn’t take whispery theorizations and a lack of interest for an answer; instead, she posed a question. She asked: “What do you think this piece represents and how is that representation critical to our understanding of today?”

Emboldened, I answered that Bowling had combined abstraction with continental shapes in order to explore histories of neo-colonization and the African diaspora within the context of South America/the Carribean slave-trade, proved by the weariness of the sketches which demonstrated that South American culture had become “lost to the map” and commodified through Eurocentric predation. This lingering, autocratic nature of colonial rule had resulted in generational, amnesiac-like trauma for the descendants of the enslaved population. They were forced to forget all traces of their multiculturalism and sophistication before the bloody era of conquistadors; now, they have been forced to pay the price.

While both Jackie, my faculty advisers, and the rest of my class remained silent but visibly shocked due to both the intensity and complexity of my response, I had felt grounded. Analyzing that painting was a cathartic experience for me; frankly, it allowed me to experience a humbling moment regarding my fortune to be able to have the following: freedoms that my family would have clawed eyes out to have a sliver of, an interconnectedness to my Hispanic heritage and empathy for Hispanic strife, and comprehension of the lengths my ancestors went to preserve their customs despite ethnic disassociation and fractionalization. 

While Hudson Yards may be a far-fetched comparison to the tempestuous environment of South America, our New York City field trip proved to be a moment of valuable reconciliation with my historical self (the one whose heritage and inter-generational disenchantment was expressed through air-brushed stenciling) and personal self (the one who is not anchored by cultural ties and societal expectation/confining criticisms, but is inquisitive as to the nature of the world around her, whether it be a sprawling urban metropolis or my own backyard).