The Museum of Modern Art has issued an apology to artist Heather Agyepong after she was ejected from an event intended to highlight how often sleep and rest are luxuries for Black people in the United States.
In a statement to the Art Newspaper, which first reported the news, a MoMA spokesperson said the museum would do more to “protect the experiences of Black visitors and visitors from Indigenous communities and communities of color” in response to what happened to Agyepong—and will now “explore” bespoke staff training. The spokesperson also said the museum plans to add more staff to the installation and consult with its creators about other changes, such as additional signage and staff training.
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On March 25, Agyepong posted a video to Twitter, where she said she and another Black woman were kicked out of the museum after confronting another visitor for laughing. Agyepong and her friend were at the museum specifically to attend the installation Black Power Naps by artists Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa.
In the video, Agyepong recounted that she told the visitor, a white woman, “I think the space is centered around Black people.” According to Agyepong, this resulted in the woman complaining that Agyepong was “aggressive” before speaking to MoMA employees, who then asked Agyepong and her friend to leave.
Agyepong said the situation was ironic in a response tweet: “Basically they told me. You can never rest!”
The artist did not reply to a request for comment from ARTnews.
Acosta and Sosa specifically designed Black Power Naps as a restful space for Black visitors in response to the question “How can we dream if we don’t sleep?” The line is from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem” about deferred dreams and strong evidence showing Black Americans are much more sleep-deprived than white Americans.
When asked about the incident, Acosta told the Art Newspaper that the artists’ attempts “to create direct action, racial sensitivity trainings, outreach and social media campaigns” around the installation “were not resourced” by the museum.
“We insisted as soon as we were first contacted that this piece needed a serious commitment to anti-racism and that not doing so could warrant violence to our community, and we have been insisting ever since,” Acosta told the Art Newspaper. “It is only now that they are recognizing how urgent this is and willing to remunerate this labour. It’s been an uphill battle. In January, we ourselves were told to be quiet in our own installation by a white visitor.”
“We reached out to Heather Agyepong and apologized,” the spokesperson for MoMA told the Art Newspaper. “We are committed to presenting programs that move race equity values forward and we acknowledge there will be challenges to work through and learn from as we support and invite artists and audiences to engage on these important issues.”
Agyepong is a London-based photographer and actor. In 2021, she was awarded both the Photo London x Nikon Emerging Photographer Award and the Photographers Gallery New Talent Award, and has been nominated multiple times for the Prix Pictet and the Paul Huf Award. Her work is held in the collections of the Autograph ABP and the Hyman Collection in London, Centre National des Arts Plastiques in Paris, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and the Mead Art Museum.
Her work is currently being shown as part of the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 4 Touring Exhibition at the Belfast Exposed photography center in Northern Ireland and at the newly inaugurated Centre for British Photography in London.