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'After Whiteness: Race and the Visual Arts' symposium set for Oct. 11

Melissa Mitchell, News Bureau arts writer


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Artist Suk Ja Kang Engles initially began to ponder issues of race and identity as a teenager growing up in a small town in Korea.

realistic-looking image showing the back of an unclothed female torso with its head on backwards
From video "Iris," by Suk Ja Kang Engles at I space gallery.

“There was a woman, in a poor neighborhood in my town, who became a streetwalker on the military base … after sleeping with a black soldier, she was allowed only to be with the black soldiers, not white ones,” Kang Engles said, recalling that the woman was known around town as the “black princess.”

Now a graduate student in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kang Engles said her early awareness of the racial branding of the prostitute by neighbors and base personnel helped inform her decision later in life to explore issues of racial identity through art. Fourteen years ago, she moved to the United States, where she established a career as a studio artist before coming to Illinois to pursue a master of fine arts degree in painting. Although paint is her primary medium, her work has expanded to include video and performance art.

Kang Engles also has a background in Korean literature, and is an educator as well. In that role, she has teamed with her husband, Tim Engles, a faculty member at Eastern Illinois University who specializes in multicultural American literature, to organize an academic symposium, “After Whiteness: Race and the Visual Arts,” on the Urbana-Champaign campus, and a related art exhibition at I space, the university’s Chicago art gallery.

The symposium, free and open to the public, will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 11 at the Levis Faculty Center, 919 W. Illinois St., Urbana. It is sponsored by the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society in conjunction with the School of Art and Design and several other campus units.

Symposium panelists, who will consider three distinct themes – whiteness and visual space, whiteness and the artist, and whiteness and art history – include artists, art historians and other scholars from Illinois and beyond. A complete schedule and list of participating panelists is available on the Web at

The keynote speaker is Wellesley College artist-scholar Adrian Piper. Her address, titled “Now What? Awakening From the Dream of Whiteness” will be presented at 3:30 p.m. in the Knight Auditorium, Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., Urbana.

The related exhibition, “After Whiteness,” will be on view Oct. 10 through Nov. 29 at I space, 230 W. Superior St., Chicago. An opening reception is planned from 5 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 10. Featured artists include Kang Engles; Illinois art professor Laurie Hogin; EIU art professor Katherine Bartel; and independent artists Kojo Griffin and Tana Hargest.

According to the events’ co-organizers, the emerging field of “whiteness studies” has generated growing interest over the past half dozen years or so from scholars and critics in a wide range of disciplines – from anthropology and sociology to law, literature and cinema studies. While the field often is defined in somewhat fluid terms, Kang Engles and Engles describe whiteness studies as encompassing “vigorous, interdisciplinary investigations into the powers and privileges bestowed upon Americans who happen to be classified as ‘white.’ This,” they noted, “constitutes a reversal of the race-informed gaze, an effort to focus on the racial status of whites with some of the intensity and concentration that has been accorded those of people of color.”

Such considerations go relatively unnoticed in discussions of the visual arts, according to Kang Engles and Engles.

“Only within the past year or so have scholars and critics of the visual arts begun to examine extensively how the notion of a white race influences ‘the art world’ and its participants,” they said. The symposium and exhibition represent “an attempt to further this inquiry, and the title is meant to convey a double meaning.”

The artists, curators and scholars involved, they explained, are “ ‘after whiteness’ in the sense that they are pursuing it, trying to capture some of its elusive formations and effects. In another sense, their work is emerging in a period when whiteness has come under increasing scrutiny in the culture at large. Changing immigration and demographic patterns have begun to bring whiteness into focus as a particular racial formation by decreasing the numerical majority of whites. Thus, since an integral component within white hegemony has been its taken-for-grantedness, its presumptive occupancy of the norm, whiteness is no longer what it was – in this sense, we live in an era ‘after whiteness.’ ”