My White Friends workshop inspires questions on race

Last Thursday, the College once again celebrated Claiming Williams Day, providing a day off of classes to attend a variety of lectures and artistic events relating to diversity and inclusion on campus. One such event was a workshop on the newly installed exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), My White Friends, by artist Myra Greene. Presented by Stephanie Dunson, director of the Writing Center, and Harry Gilbert ’14, the event allowed for all those present to get deeply involved with the art.

The installation represents only a part of Greene’s collection of photographs that she took for her My White Friends project, although she chose her selection deliberately. The title of the exhibition is very indicative of its content: It is composed entirely of photographs of white people. However, there is greater variety in the photographs than the content may suggest. They are taken from a wide variety of angles and distances and while some appear very posed, while others seem natural, or at least unstaged with no props to speak of. The curatorial choices of the exhibition were also interesting. The photographs are arranged in a rectangular grid, and they are all the same size. The grid pattern creates a sense of equality between each piece, even though the eye is naturally drawn to those in the center.

Upon arrival to the workshop, each participant sat directly in front of the art. Clipboards, paper and pens had already been placed on each chair. Dunson and Gilbert then, before any discussion, instructed every person to answer the questions on the sheets. This exercise effectively allowed everyone to capture their first impressions. The questions asked the participants to comment not only on the aesthetics of the art, but also on its meaning, not shying away from sensitive issues of race. All responses were kept anonymous, and the facilitators would pass around the clipboards so that more than one opinion could be recorded on any given page, allowing for both elaboration and dissention.

After each paper had been passed around to several participants, the workshop moved from the small Field Room into the far more open and spacious Rotunda. There, everyone was handed a random sheet, and discussed its contents in small groups. To some, the portraits appeared cold and distant, casting doubt as to whether some of these people were really Greene’s friends, as her title would suggest. To others, the photographs evoked the improvisational humor of a Christopher Guest movie, in their somewhat ironic appropriation of suburban American life. One of the most interesting discussions that arose was whether or not Greene attempts to portray the white race as a whole in her collection. Can her work be compared to photographs of Hispanic laborers, or of inner-city blacks, which often attempt to generalize the lives of the group? It cannot be denied that most of her subjects appear to live comfortable, perhaps even wealthy, suburban lives, with leisure time to pursue activities such as golf and yoga. However, as her friends, these people may simply reflect Greene’s lifestyle. Perhaps Greene tries with this project to show the ridiculousness of the genre of portraits that attempt to portray a group, as opposed to an individual.

After working in small groups, the entire crowd reconvened in a large circle, still in the Rotunda, in order to discuss our findings and to apply them more specifically to the College. The main point covered was the idea of whiteness as a multifaceted trait, and how this same concept applies to other races as well.

The fairly intense use of writing allowed for a more productive discussion, because though not everyone spoke, everyone had to participate and contribute their ideas. In addition, the anonymity afforded by this unique process gave those who are not comfortable talking about art a chance to share their views in a way that prevented embarrassment.

My White Friends is a unique exhibition, and one that has taken months to get to the College. It will be on display at WCMA until early April, and racial issues aside, the photographs are lovely portraits that should be seen by all who can make it.