Attending to our Houses

Tarini Malik

Isaac Julien, The Attendant, 1993. Still from 35 mm film, 08:10 minutes. © Isaac Julien. Image courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London.

July 8, 2020

The world is angry, the world is fearful. I am mobilized and (in part) optimistic. At times, I feel resentful. This is not new. I am not shocked.

Over the course of a few days in early June, I scrolled through hundreds of quotes by Angela Davis, reading lists including books by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Audre Lorde, and images of artworks by David Hammons and Glenn Ligon, posted and shared on social media by museums and galleries, by white and non-black friends and colleagues. I am not saying that these voices should not be heard and shared. We must recognize, and continue to recognize, their urgency. Instead, I ask if this is enough. It is not.

The immeasurable grief and anger that black people the world over continue to demonstrate on the streets was catalyzed by police violence in the US, but it has shed light on the rampant institutional and societal racism that reaches nearly every corner of this earth. Outrage should not solely be directed towards America; outrage should be directed everywhere that upkeeps the same brutalities, and where Western colonialism has enforced its systems of control and bias. In London, where I am based, the art world has been quick to cry injustice. We should be using that same fervor to attend to our own houses.

I am a brown South Asian woman. I do not have permission, nor do I seek it, to speak on behalf of the black experience, or to make black pain my own. I can say: every single day, as a person of color, you face violence. You live and breathe it: in the air, in the concrete, in every conversation and interaction. Violence does not only present in bodily harm or racial slurs: it exists in the spaces that those who hold any part of privilege perceive as “subtle,” because they are so deeply entrenched. It exists in the daily micro-aggressions that thrive because of lack of representation, resource, and opportunity; in voices silenced and histories untold. Ignorance is as guilty as overt and aggressive racial bias. Just because something is not visible to you doesn’t mean it is not in front of your very eyes.

We cannot continue to use the experiences of black subjectivity as a means simply to reproduce and mimic: we have to go further. Otherwise we reduce Davis, Eddo-Lodge, Lorde, Hammons, and Ligon to mere instruments in our quest to alleviate personal guilt. We throw our hands up in the air and say: “We do not intend to be complicit!” But we do not support this with tangible action. We are complicit whether or not we intend it: our societies, our public institutions, our private sector, and our civic spaces are held together within the fortress of this very system. Posting black squares on Instagram is solidarity only within an echo chamber, ringing hollow if we do not also take this opportunity to apprehend racial injustice, misinformation and ignorance, to protect and, crucially, make space for black people and people of color.

I implore art organizations and the individuals within them to start, at the very least, with the mechanics of daily life. To lean into the discomfort of exposing yourself as guilty, not to rest under the false assumption that to condemn police brutality is satisfactory, nor to feel safe because you have enjoyed and partaken in the work of black artists and performers, or to be reassured that you have people of color in your life as friends. It is not enough, nor will it ever be.

As I write, the posts around black solidarity are beginning to be replaced with other content, edging back into a rhythm with which we are all too familiar. My fear is that whilst white liberalism may recognize inequality, it does not as yet seek to confront and therefore to change it. There is a prêt-à-porter catharsis in allying with the aesthetics of struggle and so-called “diversity,” as opposed to understanding what institutional racism is and making a start towards dismantling it. Apologies for racist attitudes and shortcomings cannot be presented as “unconscious” anymore. This has to stop today. These acts are the product of a procedural logic written into the DNA of how many institutions have operated up to now.

Our statements and our pledges, both publicly announced and internally to staff, must obliterate the phrases “recent events” and “past days and weeks” when they talk about brutality and discrimination against black and brown bodies. Remember that we did not post black squares when Belly Mujinga died from Covid-19 after a man who claimed to have the virus hatefully spat on her at a train station in London. We did not make donations when Asians were heckled in the street, egged on by global leaders who pointedly termed this a “Chinese virus.” We did not share reading lists when Prime Minister Narendra Modi sanctioned new laws to further deny Muslims basic human rights in India. As Israel tightens its grip on Palestine, our social media channels do not choose to dedicate their feeds to Palestinian artists. At times, we act as though we are “neutral” entities within society, so anxious are we to avoid allying ourselves with party politics. Whilst we’ve only now seized upon a momentum that has been building globally, within the cultural sector we have largely ignored our civic responsibility to respond adequately and meaningfully to contemporary life. Instead we collectively express our outrage without allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. It makes us feel unsafe to question whose voices we hear, who is making the decisions, and who has a seat at the table.

Diversity—in terms of the works in our museums or the writers in our catalogues—is not the same as anti-racism. Nothing is truly inclusive until we address the representation within our offices and within our governance. We have to look at funding and how it is distributed, what we choose to acquire for our permanent collections, the projects we choose to support, and call out those that are used for the purposes of ticking a box instead of to create long-term change and impact. If you claim the right to say “Black Lives Matter,” you take on the responsibility to change your institution to look like the cities, towns, and communities that you serve. The population of London at the 2011 census was 40.2 per cent “minority” ethnic, and data shows the figure is rising.1 Yet almost 10 years later, this number is nowhere close to being reflected within the city’s museums and galleries.

Everyone within an artistic institution—the artists who provide their labor, the programmers, operational staff, security teams, maintenance, and administrative staff—contributes to an institution’s programme and therefore to an amorphous and ever-changing culture. We are united under one common purpose. We, on every level in the chain, need constantly to remind ourselves that we perpetuate colonial structures of hierarchy by not taking every voice into consideration and by failing to equip every single one of these people with the tools to understand the complexities of racialized identity and history.

The black and people of color staff that work in these organizations can feel like exceptions to the rule. They are exhausted at being used by their colleagues as resources on racial inequality. They have been doing the work, long before the death of George Floyd, to make our spaces, in simple terms, better, fairer, more discursive, critical, and reflexive. They do the work by existing in these spaces. I work as a curator in a public gallery where a network of people of color has formed, because we have craved a greater sense of respect and understanding for our lived and professional experiences. We meet, discuss our work, and write many all-too-lengthy letters to each other and to governance, in the hope that we can bring changes in policy and a more inclusive experience not only for ourselves, but for our artists and audiences too. We want to be heard when we say that if certain situations make us feel uncomfortable or small, that directly contends with the work in our programmes and ultimately does not create a safe space for our publics. There is no “us versus them,” we are part of our institutions and we rally because we believe in what they can stand for, and in the inherent ability of art to challenge prescribed ways of being.

So now is the time to take the onus upon ourselves. Now is the time to address the pathways that bring people into the professional cultural sector in the first place: the universities, educational systems, and nepotism that define the art world, the emphasis on networks, visibility, and presence. We need to interrogate to what extent working in the cultural sector is a viable financial option for a wider group of people, and query labor contracts and agreements that do not seek the permanence or longevity of black and people of color staff. Only through this structural change will it be possible to expand and include others who have the right to be there too.

There has been an enormous amount of work done by colleagues and institutions over the past few decades to dismantle these structures. In London, organizations such as Autograph and Iniva have seized on the energy generated by the cyclical return of attention to racism as a societal issue to make positive and tangible change. We need to speak cross-institutionally, learn from one another, and take note that, especially given the financial precarity exacerbated by the pandemic, we need to support each other in the months and years ahead. Those within and without cultural institutions need to do the research, and hold each other accountable: we need to write to each other, make suggestions, give our feedback, and speak up for those that are too vulnerable to speak for themselves.

In Isaac Julien’s short film The Attendant (1993),2 a black museum attendant paces the galleries alone. When he stops before a nineteenth-century painting of chattel slavery, his inner fantasies fully unravel: male bodies both black and white, in ecstasy and agony, enacting coquettish gestures and highly charged sadomasochism. Julien draws our attention not only to the policing of cultural space and contemporary labor, but to the realm of possibility within the museum’s unconscious. Fantasy and subjective experience can upend and disrupt institutionalized notions of power and control; history can be revised. For the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall (who appears in the film, observing the same painting), as for Julien and his protagonist, art and culture exist not only to appreciate or observe, but are critical sites of social intervention, where power relations are both established and unbalanced. Those sentiments are more pertinent than ever as we seek to unsettle, to make space for subjectivity and what has systemically been hidden, and to take care where we otherwise have not.



The Attendant is free to view online at

Race & Ethnicity
Racism, White Supremacy, Protests & Demonstrations, Liberalism, Decolonization

Tarini Malik is assistant curator at the Hayward Gallery, London.

RSVP for Attending to our Houses

July 8, 2020

Thank you for your RSVP.

will be in touch.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.