Kennedi Carter is a gifted art and editorial photographer who was raised in Durham. Her work, she says, “aims to reinvent notions of creativity and confidence in the realm of Blackness.”

Carter’s photos have appeared in Bitch Magazine, Oxford American, The Photographic Journal, and Vogue Italia. She also photographed “The Squad,” the four women of color elected to the House of Representatives in 2018, for the September issue of Vanity Fair edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In June, Carter painted a Black Lives Matter mural in downtown Durham, and her first solo museum exhibition, Flexing / New Realm, runs through January at CAM Raleigh.

In June, she also participated in “See In Black,” a print sale organized by a collective of Black photographers, including Joshua Kissi and Micaiah Carter (no relation to Kennedi), in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others at the hands of police.

“I wanted to give people an opportunity who normally would not have access or the ability to buy something as expensive as an edition piece,” Kennedi Carter says.

The collective formed to dismantle white supremacy and systemic oppression, and 100 percent of the sale’s proceeds benefitted “causes that align with [the collective’s] vision of Black prosperity.”

By selling $100 prints, the artists intended to raise money for worthy causes and make their work more accessible. But that generosity hardly needed to be extended to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, an institution with an endowment of more than $300 million. By purchasing discounted prints from a number of artists for a now-canceled exhibition, the Whitney demonstrated just the sort of exploitation that the collective was set against.   

Nationally and locally, artists and activists have been intensifying calls for systemic change in the art world to end practices that uphold white supremacy. Two recent petitions demanded changes at North Carolina arts institutions generally and CAM Raleigh and The Raleigh Fine Arts Society specifically.

And Durham-based arts advocacy group Art Ain’t Innocent, along with concerned local artists and community members, recently held white photographer John Davis accountable for hawking a book of Durham Black Lives Matter murals called All/Black Lives Matter without consulting the artists.  

“It’s just another example of the colonization of Black art and Black artistic rioting—whiteness trying to make a profit off Black pain and Black experiences,” Carter says.

It’s clear to Carter that this is what the Whitney did, too.

“The Whitney is an organization with the means to buy art and took advantage of the fact that we were giving people that don’t have the means access,” Carter says. “When I received an email about it, they didn’t ask. They told us that it was going to be an exhibition, and they offered a free pass for just me and another person to go to the Whitney, like something you’d get at Carowinds.”

In the email, a curator named Farris Wahbeh wrote that he was “so honored that the Whitney was able to acquire [Carter’s] work” and that her print “4ever luther’s” would be a part of Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change, an upcoming exhibition featuring “work by artists involved with collective projects that were organized in response to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter.”

When the See In Black collective and others called out the Whitney on social media for purchasing the art below market value without consulting or compensating the artists, the museum didn’t acknowledge how its actions perpetuated systems and practices that harm Black artists.

Instead, it canceled the exhibition and tweeted a lackluster apology: “We have heard the artists who have voiced their concerns. We apologize for how we handled the exhibition and the pain and frustration it caused.”

“The apology was not an apology,” Carter says. “It was Farris and the museum that caused the pain—it wasn’t the exhibition. Had they done the exhibition the way they should have, we would have all been down, but they didn’t. It makes you think about the history of museums, as well as how they truly disrespect artists at times. They don’t realize that they need us as much as we need them, and some days, we don’t even need them.

“It truly makes me think of what the world would look like without museums and if we made art public,” Carter continues. “If we made art this thing that wasn’t an elite space, a space that didn’t chew you up and spit you out and use you. How could we have spaces to collect art and give people access to these things and just get rid of the exploitative parts?”

Carter says that when Kissi and others contacted Farris to explain to him that what he was doing was wrong, they found his response defensive and unsatisfying.

“Whenever someone says, ‘I HEAR you and I’m listening’ just know it’s about to be followed up with some bogus energy,” Kissi tweeted.

Carter doesn’t regret participating in the print sale, which she saw as part of “stepping up to do the work that the government just would not do.” But after the Whitney’s actions, she fears other artists may not participate in future sales—one, Gioncarlo Valentine, has already sworn them off on Twitter—and adds that, despite the cancellation, the museum still acquired the work.

“Technically, they can show it all they want,” she says.

Yet Carter remains undaunted. Of the Black artists who paved the way, she says, “They dealt with things like this and sat silent because they didn’t want to be blackballed. They opened the doors for me to say what I have to say.”

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