A digital exhibition held last month by Winston Wächter Fine Art, a gallery with outposts in Manhattan and Seattle, resulted in accusations of White saviorism and exploitation of Black trauma for profit.
The exhibition No More Blood entailed a series of photographs by Meghan Boody, a White artist, depicting Black people in New Orleans who had been affected by gun violence. Boody’s digitally altered photographs portray residents of New Orleans’s eighth ward with blood pooling at their feet and engulfed in a blue fog, presumably gun smoke. The figures appear in settings stereotypically associated with the city: standing under a live oak, in a swamp, and among the tombs of a raised grave cemetery. Hyperallergic has made an editorial decision not to reproduce the images.
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Boody’s images were initially produced in 2014 to advertise a gun buyback program in the eighth ward, and Winston Wächter Fine Art says they were taken “in collaboration and with full support of the community in New Orleans.”
“Meghan was asked by the organizers and community leaders to take images of the community members affected by gun violence for billboards that promoted the event,” Christine Wächter, owner of Winston Wächter Fine Art told Hyperallergic in an email.
But when the photographs re-appeared nearly eight years later in a different context — a for-profit exhibition — some social media users expressed concerns. The works were priced between $7,500 and $10,000.
In anticipation of the digital exhibition’s opening, Winston Wächter Fine Art shared an Instagram post announcing the body of work. After critical comments surfaced, the gallery added more information to the caption to further explain the photographs and eventually took down the post altogether. Screenshots of the since-deleted post show the statement added by the gallery: “Through the lens of a camera, Meghan Boody embarked on paying homage to victims of gun violence by capturing their portraits in scenes that are genuine to the culture and community of New Orleans. Boody is from Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The screenshots also reveal some users’ confusion and dismay at the images. “White saviorism and exploitation of Black bodies for White profit,” read a comment from user @keshabruce.
Other comments asked questions of the gallery directly: “Why didn’t you choose the elevate the work of a Black artist?” @journal.as.altar posed.
“Where are the profits from the sales of the photographs going?” asked @liztranstudios.
In her statement to Hyperallergic, Christine Wächter said, “The gallery fully supports Meghan Boody as an artist, but does understand with today’s knowledge that this particular project brings up many sensitive issues that are and should be at the forefront of social justice conversations. The gallery hopes to continue a productive and healthy dialogue about the body of work.” Boody could not be reached for comment.
No More Blood was created as part of a project for Prospect.3: Notes for Now, the 2014 edition of the New Orleans triennial. The photographs were used as promotional billboard images for an interactive art installation staged in October 2014 by curator and artist Kirsha Kaechele, which consisted of a one-day gun buyback in the eighth ward where people could turn in guns in exchange for cash. Kaechele lived in the eighth ward for 10 years and told the Huffington Post in an article about her project: “The art is the act of buying the guns. It’s the ritual, a performance piece.”
The billboards, also pictured in Winston Wächter’s digital exhibition, included Boody’s photographs and advertised the date and time of the buyback. It is unclear how many firearms were actually bought back, but the program offered owners $75 for a working handgun, $150 for a working rifle, and $250 for working assault rifles and semi- and fully-automatics. Descriptions of the project cite the collaboration of local artists, dancers, and rappers.
In 2014, the gun buyback project and Boody’s photographs did not appear to stir criticism. Kaechele — who is also White — told the Huffington Post that her hope was to inspire “young men in the 8th Ward and the surrounding neighborhood … to trade killing for creativity.”
“Through the relationships they’ve developed they decide they can move past the paradigm of gangsters and guns,” Kaechele added.
Kaechele and Prospect have not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
The phenomenon known as “White saviorism,” rooted in an imperialist concept that was historically used to justify colonialism and enslavement, has been called out time and time again. A viral TikTok posted by @benchutta in March demonstrates the problem: a group of White tourists taking photographs of children of color abroad. “Please don’t do this when you travel to Africa,” reads an overlaid text.
To some, Boody’s photographs appear today as a relic of the way certain ideas were conceptualized and discussed eight years ago, especially with regard to White people’s individual efforts to combat systemic issues such as racism and inequity. In the words of one commenter: “Very confused here.”