In 2009, not long after President Obama’s election, artist Sam Durant installed a light-up sign on the exterior of Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea with the words “End White Supremacy” written in crude handwriting. The image, lettering and all, was appropriated from a photo Durant found of a 1963 Civil Rights march in which a protestor could be seen carrying the same message on a placard. A week ago, Durant’s sign re-appeared in the same spot, though under very different circumstances.
Back when it was originally installed during the first blush of Obama’s victory, Durant’s piece read like the fulfillment of a promise, as Americans contemplated the possibility of a post-racial future. That hope was soon dashed, of course, and given the outpouring of racist sentiment that surrounded Donald Trump’s Electoral College win over Hillary Clinton, probably naive to begin with. Given the current situation, Durant’s sign now seems like a bitter irony—or, depending on your point of view, a call to the barricades.
The point of Durant’s gesture, however, isn’t really about the sentiment itself. It is, rather, an object lesson in how our reactions to such messages change with events. Doubtless those reactions will continue to change as the work remains in place—which, for now, is indefinitely, according to the gallery.