Selected pages from "The Protest and The Recuperation"


What lies ahead for the art of protest? “Weapons of theweak,” as the anthro- pologist and political scientist James Scott has called them, 1 include forms of mass assembly that transform the fragile individual into an unstoppable force—for good or for ill. On the one hand, that power can express itself in violence, as it did at theUnited States Capitol on January 6, 2021. On the other, it can offer what wemight call “potent hope.” All those bodies in peaceful but unified purpose: a better world is sure to follow. The Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University takes up the beau- ty and potential of mass movements in the exhibition catalogued in these pages, The Protest and The Recuperation . There has never been a better time to bring the resources of art to bear on political content. I am not speaking here of ideological works that use the various media of the arts to package their content in appealing dress. Rather, I am speaking of works that invite thought and feeling about political subjects through open forms, ambiguity, morphology, perspective, shock, beauty, texture, and the startling juxtapo- sition of elements. In the works gathered here, we encounter not packaging but experience. Indeed, it is the experience of prolonged protest and its consequences for individuals and societies that is newly salient. Citizens young and old, the world over, have put their lives on the line or on hold—in some contexts, devot- edmonths to what can only be called the full-time work of protest. Suited up and heading out each day and night inHong Kong, in Ferguson, in Tahrir Square, citizens dedicated to change confront the fact that the status quo, held up by its institutions and habits, is positioned to outlast them. And in virtually every case, protest carries the potential for violence even when a majority of indi- viduals are peaceful. Sometimes, at the end of their options, violence is turned against the self—as in hunger strikes or self-immolation. Is there a way to do this work with the urgency and duration it sometimes demands yet maintain an ethic of care? Here is where creativity comes in. This exhibition suggests that art- making has a vital role to play in the practice of recuperative—or, we might say, sustainable—protest. We see artistic play, for instance, in the elaborate headdresses and masks fashioned by protesters to protect their identities in the portraits from Eugenia Vargas-Pereira’s series Tus ojos cuentan la historia (Your Eyes Tell the Story , 2019). Looking at a photographic image, one cannot help but hear, feel and rejoice in thewater, the human grace, and the saturat- ed color of Sharon Chin’s performance event at the 2013 Singapore Biennale, Mandi Bunga/Flower Bath . I have beenmoved by other forms of protest in art in recent years—for instance, the Palestinian artist Nidaa Badwan’s photographic

1. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Week: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (NewHaven: Yale University Press, 1985).


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