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Conceptions of White

Works by:

Arthur Jafa, Barbara Meneley, Deanna Bowen, Fred Wilson, Hiram Powers, Howardena Pindell, Jennifer Chan, Jeremy Bailey, Ken Gonzales-Day, Michèle Lalonde, Nell Painter, Nicholas Galanin, Robert Morris, Ryan Kuo, and Artist once known, after Leochares

Conceptions of White

Curated by John G. Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis


January 11–March 25, 2023


Art Museum at the University of Toronto
University of Toronto Art Centre
(in University College)
15 King’s College Circle

Conceptions of White is an exhibition offering context and nuanced perspectives that help viewers grapple with contemporary configurations of White identity. The exhibition examines the origins, travel, and present reality of “Whiteness” as a concept and a racial invention that classifies degrees of civility/humanity.

Select historical objects and artworks illustrate White origin myths within their historical context, revealing Whiteness as a North American, settler-colonial invention of the seventeenth century, created alongside “Blackness” and “Aboriginality.” The contemporary artists in this exhibition complicate this historical foundation by examining how these acts of racialization are felt today through concepts of White guilt, anxiety, supremacy, benevolence, fragility, and power. These artists force us to confront the ideology of cultural erasure embedded in the social construction of Whiteness, the ramifications of its continually expanding borders, and the society fostered by this relatively young theory of racial categorization.

Together, the diverse narratives, images, and concepts presented in Conceptions of White examine the existential, experiential, and ethical dimensions of engaging in classifications of Whiteness, while also drawing on the conceptual connections between colonial Whiteness and the aesthetic, social, and philosophical meaning we ascribe to the colour white.

The exhibition is framed through a biracial lens with both curators seeking a clearer understanding of their own relationship to Whiteness. John G. Hampton (Chickasaw/Canadian/American) is the Executive Director and CEO of the MacKenzie Art Gallery and Lillian O’Brien Davis (Jamaican/Canadian) is the Curator of Exhibitions and Public Programming at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography.

Conceptions of White is organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery.

Exhibition Resources

Press Release
Large Format Text
Exhibition Documentation

Virtual Spotlight

A Research Toolkit on the Origins and Meanings of White Identity

Opening Reception

Wednesday, January 11, 6pm–8pm
University of Toronto Art Centre

Curatorial Tour with John Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis

Saturday, January 14, 2pm–4pm
University of Toronto Art Centre
John G. Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis will speak about the origins, travel, and present reality of “Whiteness” as a concept and a racial invention that classifies degrees of civility/humanity as presented in the various artworks in Conceptions of White. Watch recording.

Conversation: Institutional Perspectives on Whiteness in Cultural Spaces

Saturday, February 25, 2pm–4pm ET
Online on Zoom
Executive Directors John G. Hampton (MacKenzie Art Gallery), Barbara Fischer (Art Museum at the University of Toronto), and Anthony Kiendl (Vancouver Art Gallery) will reflect on urgent questions and strategies for changing the traditionally White frameworks of art museums and imagining a decolonized visual space.

Artists in Conversation: Enacting Identities

Wednesday, March 8, 6pm–8pm ET
Online on Zoom
Engaging from specific cultural positions, Jeremy Bailey, 2Fik, and Stacey Tyrell—exhibiting artists from Conceptions of White and THE COUNTER/SELF—will discuss the nuances of identity formation and perception, trajectories of research, and new outlooks that have resulted from their investigations. Watch recording.

Keynote Lecture: Claudia Rankine

Tuesday, March 21, 6pm–8pm ET
Online on Zoom
Award-winning poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine will share her own research into racial constructs and Whiteness within (art) institutions, expanding on and reflecting additional perspectives on the study of White identity.

Conversation: Race, Ethics, and Power

Wednesday, March 22, 5:30pm–7pm
Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto
Centre for Ethics Doctoral Fellow Letticia Cosbert Miller and curator Lillian O’Brien Davis will explore topics related to the exhibition and intersecting interests of race, ethics and power in art and art-making.

Our Supporters

We gratefully acknowledge the operating support from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Toronto Arts Council, and the Ontario Arts Council.



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