At the hot new “protest art” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday, a cluster of museumgoers shattered the silence, breaking into a call and response. An installation on the wall soon morphed into a performance piece, as activist Alicia Boyd launched into a mic check, and distilled her community’s outrage into a fierce proclamation.
“Every black community is under attack!” cried Boyd, as the exhibition space echoed with a litany of grievances about homelessness, displacement, and greed.
“As our public assets are being sold to developers, as our elected officials are riddled with corruption, as the real-estate industry destroys families and communities for money…”
Boyd called out the museum and its director, Anne Pasternak: “We stand united.… Whose side are you on!”
As security staff swooped in, Boyd pointed to the installation behind her: a presentation on gentrification and displacement, arranged around a screen.
“This is my exhibit, this is my exhibit!” Boyd countered. The staff backed off when they realized that the artist was indeed imitating her art. Her face then appeared on the screen in a video decrying gentrification, framed amid a montage of scenes of organizing campaigns.
On the same floor, another protest erupted at This Place, a photography exhibit depicting the Israeli occupation in a supposedly “balanced” light. A group of protesters chanted, “Decolonize this place!”—denouncing the occupation of Palestine and linking it to the museum space itself, as another product of historic land colonization. To rectify the framing of certain pictures, they placed their own labels by the official Israeli titles, to reveal the Palestinian names.
“While the museum claims not to take sides,” the activists declared, “We see apartheid as a black-and-white issue.”
Eventually security escorted the protesters outside. Some climbed onto the balcony on the museum’s facade to drop banners displaying the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Decolonize This Place,” which were quickly whisked away.
The museum saw these parallel exhibits as representing two exciting artistic vanguards. To the protesters, they were two glorifications of one contiguous colonization project stretching from the West Bank to Williamsburg. With the juxtaposition of a dubiously financed exhibit celebrating a colonial project and another seeking to expropriate the vernacular of popular protest, local artists see the gulf widening between private agendas and a public cultural institution.