Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties asks: how does our current institutional practices and lessons reinforce white narratives of American history? Throughout the play, we are encouraged and challenged to consider what it would mean to decolonize those practices.

What exactly is decolonization?

Decolonization is more than an attempt at diversification. It’s an active, political shift away from a dominant Western white male canon. It’s an acknowledgment and celebration of voices that have been purposefully stifled and historically overlooked. It’s not just acknowledging these voices it’s hearing them first. Right now, efforts are being made across subject matters at decolonization, particularly within the academic and art worlds. Artists are creating bold, subversive work that challenge notions of power, beauty, appropriation, visibility and invisibility.

Top Image: John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, 1819

Using different forms of art like photography, sculpture and painting, artists are creating a connection between the past and the present.

Bottom Image:Declaration Descendants’ for Ancestry.com by Droga5 New York, 2017

We are living in a time when many people feel disconnected from one another, and one of the most powerful things we can do is to show how connected we really are. The ‘Declaration Descendants’ campaign highlights how our individual and collective history is an important part of our country’s complex DNA and that we are all universally connected, sometimes in unexpected ways.” Vineet Mehra, Ancestry Chief marketing Officer

These artists of color are taking historical paintings, many of which may be familiar, and purposefully manipulating them – either by physically altering the existing image or creating a new image with people of color at its focus.


Titus Kaphar

“I don’t want you to think that this is about eradication. It’s not. We can’t erase this history. It’s real. We have to know it. What I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to show you is how to shift your gaze just slightly, just momentarily.”

Shifting the Gaze, 2017

In his practice, Kaphar cuts, bends, erases, stitches, tars, and tears paintings and sculpture to reveal unspoken truths and relationships throughout history. Shifting the Gaze is based on a seventeenth-century group portrait by the Dutch artist Frans Hals, which Kaphar famously finished on stage during his 2017 TED talk. By painting broad, white strokes over the white family in his reproduction of Hals’s original painting, Kaphar diverted attention to the Black servant at its center.

Elizabeth Colomba

“There’s power in embracing who you are, your history, what you look like and not trying to pretend to be somebody else.”

Laure (Portrait of a Negresse), 2018

This painting takes as its subject the maid in Édouard Manet’s Olympia. Colomba creates paintings based on real characters from famous paintings – they are known but unrecognizable, without names or identities. She takes them out of that context and gives them a full scene.

Ken Gonzales-Day

“There is also the question of “audience”, and artistic intention, but… I [seek] to create a new context where historically problematic objects could be re-engaged in new ways.”

The Unsolved Case of ‘Spanish Charlie,’ 2015

I felt like the restaging of a 1920 lynching [of two white men and a Latino man] was relevant to our own times, not simply because the topic has never been the subject of a major (or minor) film, but because so many aspects of the Latino experience are not even recognized as part of the American experience.”

Renee Cox

“Once you have the power, you always have the power. The power comes from within. It’s not a state of mind: the real power comes from the heart. All women have it. It’s a matter of cultivating—and realizing—that power. You have to feel it.”

The Signing, 2018

Deconstructing stereotypes has been an integral part of my work since the beginning in 1993. All of my work has been about empowerment and creating images that uplift our people up, who have been misrepresented for the last 300 years.”

Kehinde Wiley

“My desire is to restart the conversation. This is something that, as artists, we constantly deal with – throwing away the past, slaying the father, and creating the new.”

After Titan’s ‘The Penitent Magdalene,’ 2009

Through the process of “street casting,” Wiley invites individuals, often strangers he encounters on the street, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts the pose of the painting’s figure. By inviting the subjects to select a work of art, Wiley gives them a measure of control over the way they’re portrayed.

Decolonization is not about erasure – it’s about celebration. It’s about coming to terms with the past so that we may move forward into the future.

To decolonize is to heal.

Make sure to check out the Big Picture screen in the Geva Theatre lobby for more information on The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess.

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