Following controversy over a board member’s pro-Trump fundraising event earlier this month, tensions at the Shed in New York have heightened. Last week, the Observer reported that two artists—A. L. Steiner and Zackary Drucker—had removed their work in protest of the political gathering—organized by Shed supporter Stephen M. Ross in the Hamptons—from an exhibition on view at the multidisciplinary art space. Two days after that report, another action followed.
On Sunday, as part of a performance, artist and DJ Thanushka Yakupitiyage and a guest performer, singer and harpist Elsz, brandished T-shirts and hung signs that protested Ross, a real-estate developer who owns the fitness brands Equinox and Soul Cycle and a board member who has been integral in helping fund the Shed in the commercial district of Hudson Yards. The shirts bore the message “DECOLONIZE THIS PLACE”—an allusion to the activist group that repeatedly protested Warren B. Kanders’s position as vice chair of the Whitney Museum’s board earlier this year. Signs surrounding the duo read “$250,000 = ONE TICKET TO TRUMP FUNDRAISER” and “250,000+ IMMIGRANTS DEPORTED IN 2018.”
“As a young queer artist of color, I’ve been thinking about where there are opportunities to do work with integrity,” Yakupitiyage, who also performs under the moniker Ushka, told ARTnews. “Given the content of my work, I felt I could respond to what’s been going on around Stephen M. Ross.”
A spokesperson for the Shed did not respond to requests for comment.
Yakupitiyage and Elsz were performing as part of “Open Call,” an exhibition of commissioned work by emerging artists based in New York. (The work by Steiner and Drucker had previously been featured in the same show, which closed on Sunday.) Inside the Shed, Yakupitiyage was showing Migrantscape, an audiovisual installation focused on the stories of four migrants. In her performance on the show’s last day, she added to her electronic music audio of Trump discussing migrants and Ross talking about his real-estate work.
While deciding how to respond to the controversy around Ross, Yakupitiyage worked in consultation with Decolonize This Place. Noting that her performance was “not a protest or a disruption per se,” she said she had been thinking of how young artists of color are positioned by institutions, asking herself such questions as “How are they instrumentalized? Is that a cover for profiteering? Is all money blood money?”
Yakupitiyage said that she was “calling for accountability,” and added, “Is it enough to say artists’ values are being upheld if an institution is also engaging with the values of people in power?”