On “White Boys” /// Conversation with Brendan Wattenberg ’06

BW - Conference 2013

As part of the exhibition White Boys currently on view in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, the Creative Residencies Program and the Hurford Center are hosting a panel discussion with four artists from the show and curator Natasha L. Logan this Wednesday, 4/17 at 4:30 p.m. in Stokes 102. Moderating the panel will be Brendan Wattenberg, Director of Exhibitions at The Walther Collection Project Space in New York and Haverford Class of 2006 (While a student at Haverford, Brendan was also one of the first to get involved with the Hurford Center’s student programming).

In advance of the conversation, CFG Gallery Assistant Pia Chakraverti-Wuerthwein ’16 checked in with Brendan to get his thoughts on White Boys and his own time at Haverford.

How do you know White Boys Co-Curators Hank Willis Thomas and Natasha L. Logan?

When I was in graduate school for Africana Studies at New York University, I had a class with Deborah Willis, Hank’s mother, who is one of the most renowned historians of African American photography. Through Dr. Willis, I met Hank and I began to learn about his work, particularly after his exhibition “Pitch Blackness,” which was shown in 2009 at Jack Shainman Gallery. This winter, Hank, Natasha, and I participated in an amazing conference in Paris, co-organized by NYU and Harvard, called “Black Portraiture[s]: The Black Body in the West.” At one point during the conference, as we were rushing around between events, I ran into Natasha and she said: “Remind me – we have to talk about White Boys.” And at first I thought, “white boys”? Like, in general?

Were there any pieces from the show that particularly stood out to you?

I am so fascinated by Philip Metz’s “iwishiwas.” Although it’s a very minimal picture, “iwishiwas” gives off a kind of intense energy full of difficult associations. I’m thinking of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, the history of skin-lightening creams marketed to African Americans, the phenomenon of “passing” as one race or another, and the privileged status of an “all-American” type of white masculinity that you see just about everywhere, from GQ to Matt Damon movies.

Philip Metz, iwishiwas, 2007

“iwishiwas” also references the clinically spare ID portraits by Thomas Ruff, as well as the self-portraiture of Cindy Sherman and Samuel Fosso, who masterfully displace their personalities through costume, makeup, and pose. Except Metz’s self-portrait has the added edge of obviously playing out some kind of personal drama about race identification. Maybe it’s supposed to be funny or satirical, but if so beyond the joke is a dissonant mood. I’m not surprised to see how “iwishiwas” has been used in the branding of White Boys, considering that the image sharply describes an illusion of whiteness.

What ideas are you most excited to explore on Wednesday?

Since the 1960s, the Menil Foundation and later the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard have been working to publish an encyclopedic set of books called The Image of the Black in Western Art. When I first looked at a volume from the series I was intrigued by the way one question – how have black people been represented in art? – could bring together all kinds of objects across time and medium. The question becomes a conceptual device, a way of looking guided by one pursuit. And it changes the way you see historic paintings, for example, as if something’s missing or someone is in the shadows. Hank and Natasha have also used one organizational principle – whiteness – in curating White Boys. Well, they’re not compiling 3,500 years worth of art, but the idea is similar. In our conversation, I look forward to discussing how this provocative idea amplifies, first of all, the way we look at white skin.

As soon as I started thinking about “white boys” I was thinking about whiteness not only as a racial category but also as a color palette. Suddenly, all the white boys in photographs by artists such as Ryan McGinley and Wolfgang Tillmans seemed defined by their race, the variations and similarities in their color, where before they were just having fun or looking sexy. As Maurice Berger has written, for some white people “whiteness is pure and value free. It is innate. It is everywhere. Yet ironically it is also invisible.” So, I’m eager to hear from the artists and the audience how White Boys might change the way we look at white people in contemporary art and the ways in which whiteness (like blackness) might be subjected to the attention – as Hank and Natasha have noted – of ethnographic curiosity.

How has the CFG space changed since you were a student here?

A few years ago I visited Haverford for a conference organized by Ruti Talmor on African photography, coinciding with the exhibition Possible Cities/Imaging Africa. To me, this was a major event for the college, not only in the organization of a superb and challenging exhibition, but also providing the space for scholarship around visual culture and the humanities in Africa. I wouldn’t have imagined that such a program was possible I when was a student. To be honest, I remember Haverford’s gallery as a somewhat quiet place, maybe a place for student and faculty exhibitions. I’m impressed by the transformation of the gallery as a venue for exploring issues within contemporary culture: disabilities, race, African photography. Even the pop-up exhibition organized around the time of alumni weekend in 2011 (when I visited for my fifth reunion) was so witty and inventive. Clearly the Arts and Humanities Center has created a new sense of artistic energy on campus.

When you were a student here you were very involved in performance arts. Why did you decide to transition to becoming more involved in exhibition work?

“Performance arts” sounds so lofty! I really just directed a few student plays. Although I guess I thought I’d give it a try – and after graduation I worked for two years in various sectors of the theater industry in New York. When I began applying for graduate school, I wanted to focus on African drama and cinema. (At Haverford I was an English major concentrating in Africana Studies and I spent the spring of my junior year at the University of Ghana.) I decided on NYU in part to work with Manthia Diawara, who has written widely on African cinema. But, in my first year, I took a class on photography with Deborah Willis called “The Black Body and the Lens.” By this point, I was working part-time on exhibitions at the Museum for African Art. Following Dr. Willis’s advice, I continued studying photography and visual arts. I later interned at a London photography agency, Autograph ABP, and since 2011 I’ve worked with The Walther Collection, a foundation devoted to presenting photography and video by African artists.


Join Brendan along with White Boys curator Natasha L. Logan and artists Lisa Fairstein, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Michael Ratulowski this Wednesday, 4/17 at 4:30 p.m. in Stokes Hall, Room 102, Haverford College.