During the first sunny day after the relentless Spring Break snowstorm in New York City, I walked into the dimly lit space of the sixth-floor exhibition at the Whitney Museum. The first thing that registered in my mind was the stark white title An Incomplete History of Protest splayed out across the coal black wall. As I looked to my left, I saw a single, giant flag with writing looming in the distance. The large white font sewn onto the black fabric sent a wave of powerful emotion that stopped me in my track.
“A Man was Lynched by Police Yesterday”.
It’s hard to fully describe what I felt, standing there feeling suddenly so small. It’s the indignation you feel when you read about a social injustice in the news. It’s the disbelief you experience when you recognize how prominently racial discrimination still prevails. It’s the sadness that hits you when you realize just how ugly the world can be. These unnerving emotions only multiplied as I navigated through rooms after rooms of historical social crises but I promise you, there’s a good ending.
In one of the rooms I came across a viciously cut and stretched pair of tights pinned to the wall and ceiling. The piece, Internal I (1977) by Senga Nengudi, evoked in me an intense discomfort as I could almost internalize the same strain and pain in my own skin. As I kept walking, I was captivated by a table full of trophies. Each had the names of police officers who committed police brutality and the victims of those events. The stark irony of the trophies awarded for the abuse of power made this one of the most impactful works I experienced in the exhibition. The list goes on and on from protests of the Vietnam War to the AIDS Crisis, some of them too unnerving and unbearable to recall.
By the time I stumbled into the final room flooded with sunlight streaming through the tall glass windows, I was gasping for breath. A good friend had recommended the exhibition to me and showed me some of the works online but I was utterly unprepared for the emotional rollercoaster I would experience. Just as I sank into the comfortable couches in the seemingly otherwise empty white room, I realized the exhibition had one more experience to offer. The wall behind the seating was covered with Badlands Unlimited’s New No’s over and over again. Then it hit me –just how I missed this writing on the wall at first, we could easily turn a blind eye or be ignorant to the global issues of gender violence, racial and religious discrimination, and hate that so obviously cover the backdrop of societal existence.
But at the same time, my journey in An Incomplete History of Protest ended on a hopeful note. With the warm sunlight on my face, I felt a ray of hope amongst the conflicting emotions, knowing that there’s more good acting in the world than we realize. This exhibition only shows a small part of the powerful conversation of acceptance and peace that so many in the world care deeply about and engaging actively in today.