White Flag Projects will present a high profile performance Thursday, May 22, that has garnered criticism for featuring a young, black, female artist named Donelle Woolford as the fictional persona of white, male artist Joe Scanlan.
In “Dick’s Last Stand,” Woolford (played by actress Jennifer Kidwell, who was hired by Scanlan) performs a line-by-line re-enactment of a censored 1977 Richard Pryor stand-up routine originally meant to be aired during the fourth and final episode of The Richard Pryor Show. In the routine, Pryor brazenly recounts stories replete with sex, race relations and plenty of phallic humor from the raw perspective of one of his staple characters named Mudbone.
(So, to recap — or confuse — “Dick’s Last Stand” is performed by artist Joe Scanlan’s fictional persona, Donelle Woolford, who is actually actress Jennifer Kidwell performing the role of Richard Pryor performing the role of Mudbone.)
The piece is officially part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, a prominent art exhibition held every two years in New York City that often features young or lesser known artists. Instead of remaining in the museum, though, “Dick’s Last Stand” is being shown in 12 cities around the U.S.
The piece was heavily criticized by artist collective HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? (Yams for short), a group of predominantly black and queer visual artists, poets, actors and writers who exhibited a video in this year’s Whitney Biennial. Last week, the group withdrew its video from the exhibition because of what it said was the offensive nature of the Woolford piece.
In a letter to the Whitney Museum and reprinted in the blog Hyperallergic, the members of Yams defended their decision: “We’re sure that we don’t need to explain how the notion of a black artist being ‘willed into existence’ and the use of a black FEMALE body through which a WHITE male ‘artist’ conceptually masturbates in the context of an art exhibition presents a troubling model of the BLACK body and of conceptual RAPE.” A similar opinion has been expressed by others, including the producer of a Tumblr blog devoted to “calling out white privilege in the art world” by encouraging others to contribute pictures of self-deprecating “whiteboy art.”
Matthew Strauss, the founder and director of White Flag Projects, who has worked with Scanlan before, defended the project. “There’s nothing to be pissed off about here. Nothing,” said Strauss. “Joe is an established artist and scholar; he has a brilliant academic background and art practice, and I have no reservations whatsoever about the complexity and the seriousness of what he has undertaken with the Donelle Woolford project.”
For years, Scanlan has hired several black actresses to play Donelle Woolford as she engages in all areas of the contemporary art world: giving university lectures, performing internationally, and attending gallery openings for her Cubist, wood collages. In a 2010 interview in Bomb Magazine, Scanlan describes what motivated him to invent Woolford. “After the first collages happened in my studio, I liked them but they seemed like they would be more interesting if someone else made them, someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references. So I studied the collages for a while and let them tell me who their author should be.”
In the decade-plus that the project has existed, this is the first time the work has received such a strong backlash. Michelle Grabner, the curator who chose to include the work of Scanlan and the Yams collective in the Whitney Biennial, said in an e-mail that Yams executed its “much-postponed withdrawal” from the 2014 Whitney Biennial only after multiple screenings of its video were shown during the exhibition’s opening weekend — the timing of which, Strauss said, seemed “tactical.”
Strauss said he is not aware of any negative reaction to the work from St. Louis residents. Tickets to the performance are nearly sold out, and Strauss believes that any interest that has been generated is purely a result of the rare presence of any Whitney Biennial project in St. Louis.
“I would encourage people who are curious about it to come and judge it for themselves based on its merits,” said Strauss, “rather than on any hyperbolic, controversial aspects that might be circulating around it.”
For a discussion of the artistry of Richard Pryor and more background on this show, read "Performance art from Whitney Biennial revives Richard Pryor" by Chris King of the St. Louis American.
To see “Dick’s Last Stand” at White Flag Projects, register on Eventbrite at: www.eventbrite.com/e/donelle-woolford-dicks-last-stand-tickets-11126964049
The 2014 Whitney Biennial is on view in New York City until Sunday, May 25.