Napoleon Gallery Name Should Get the Guillotine
Below is an opinion letter written by Stuart Roberts. Members of the Napoleon Gallery were contacted but declined the opportunity to respond to this letter.
At a time when confederate flags are being lowered in the south, monuments to pro-slavery fighters removed, and institutions honoring them having their names replaced, Philadelphia lags behind the rest of the country with it’s artist run collective gallery Napoleon, named after the racist, colonialist, pro-slavery dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte who fought a war (unsuccessfully) to try to re-enslave Haitians. In their initial press release, the Napoleon gallery, in what they apparently thought was a rebellious spirit, asked Philadelphia artists (or at least it’s white ones) to join them and “be a Napoleon.” Do the white artists of Philadelphia really want to be like a racist dictator?
Napoleon, like virtually every other Philadelphia art collective, has zero black members, but, of course, what black person would want to show at a gallery named in honor of someone who would enslave them and their families and did enslave their ancestors? Would Jewish artists want to show in a gallery named after Hitler? The Napoleons say their gallery name was chosen because their gallery space is small and Napoleon was small. There are, believe it or not, other small white people they could have named their gallery after who were not racist dictators. They suggest we should ignore Napoleon Bonaparte’s bad points. If I named a gallery that featured mediocre artists “Adolf,” because he too was a mediocre artist, would Jews and gays be so willing to ignore his problematic moments and focus solely on his artistic mediocrity?
The artists who show and perform at the gallery, perhaps unknowingly, force their black and non-racist friends to choose between supporting their work or boycotting their friends show entirely. It shouldn’t be up to the one black person in the room to continually have to explain white peoples oblivious racism to them. One of the results of having such a small, tight-knit art world is that white artists in Philadelphia are not even aware of larger, broader issues because all of their friends have similar backgrounds to them.
Philadelphia has a very segregated art world (it’s a very segregated city) Group shows feature a vastly disproportionate amount of white artists to artists of color, particularly black artists. This is a complicated problem and it’s an additional problem that many people don’t recognize that it IS a problem. Changing the Napoleon name won’t solve all the Philadelphia art world’s racial issues but it’s an important first step. Do we really need to announce to visitors to the 319 N. 11 St. building (or to the broader art world) “hey, we’re pretty racist here” by having the name of Napoleon greeting them? Do Philadelphia artists really want to identify with and “be a Napoleon?” I hope not, but by not condemning the name, that’s what they’re doing
The gallery name should get the guillotine and it’s members should move on, in a more egalitarian spirit, with a new improved name.