With “Race Cards,” Selina Thompson Flips the Deck on the Conversation Around Racism

Wednesday 16th, January 2019 / 08:00
by Joey Lopez

photo by Manuel Vason

If you were to ask 1000 questions about anything, what would it be? In her art installation titled Race Cards, multi-disciplinary artist Selina Thompson asks 1000 questions about race and racism. What started as performance art in which Thompson invited strangers to watch her as she sat in a room writing question after question has now become a travelling exhibit showcasing a subject everyone should be questioning every chance they get. To dive deep into herself and pull these questions from her experience wasn’t easy and was, at times, detrimental to Thompson’s mental and physical wellbeing. The installation began as a 12-hour performance, writing 800 questions as people entered the room one at a time to watch her write and watch the installation grow.

“[The experience] made me very ill, so I said I never wanted to do that again,” says Thompson of the beginnings of her provocative work. “So we turned it into an installation. I rewrite it every nine months or so – update questions that are out of date, or no longer relevant, put things in that are now essential. We make edits for different national contexts and when working with a different language, I translate in collaboration with a local artist of colour, so a lot changes there too. But it is one long stream of consciousness at its heart. It was very, very hard, emotionally. Part of why the work needs a boundary around it is to protect me from the residue of that experience.”

Thompson’s inspirations for Race Cards lies within the name of the installation itself, something that’s been under the noses of those who can’t relate to the experience of the transgressions – macro and micro – that people of colour face on a daily basis.

“I have to be upfront and confess immediately that I am not a particularly subtle person,” Thompson adds. “I don’t have that kind of smarts, so the inspiration is literally the term ‘playing the race card.’ I was sick of being told I was doing it, sick of hearing it used to silence people, irritated by the fact that this was a terminology that had been used to disempower and negate the experiences of people since I was small, and seemed to be the case. Initially, I wanted to turn it on its head, find a way of playing a race card that was empowering. I was also super interested in internet – particularly Twitter – discourse around race. The speed of it, the mix of autobiography and theory in a very specific way, the competition, the one-upmanship. I was also sick of being asked about race by people who were decades older than me. That’s enough. I’m going to ask the questions now. The person asking the questions is the person that holds the power, because they’re setting the discourse – and that’s part of why whiteness situates race as a problem that people of colour need to solve, to maintain that power dynamic. I wanted to try to outsmart it.”

By turning the tables on the conversation and by having those who hold power over the source of racism through virtue of whiteness and the privilege that is inherent within it, Thompson aims to make people think, but what they take away from it is entirely up to them.

“How people feel as they read them is not my business, nor my concern,” she says. “I know that sounds really harsh and standoffish, but it’s not a theatre work, where I’m kind of locking an audience into what is essentially a trigger chamber to stimulate specific feelings. An installation is much more open ended. You can walk away when it’s too much. I have less pressure to entertain. There is a clearer boundary and I like that boundary and the work it does, so it can stay in place. Feel what you want, take away what you want – the work of coming to terms with race is lifelong, and no one can do it for you.”

Race Cards runs from January 23-February 2 at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Center as part of the PuSh Festival.

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