White wall gallery with grey floors and three artworks hanging and leaning against the wall.
All: A belief rather than a memory, (2022), True Match, (2022), Multinational lifestyle retail corporation, (2022). Photo credit: Virginia Harold.

Kelly Kristin Jones

Christina Nafziger

Chicago artist Kelly Kristin Jones creates photo-based work that challenges, interrogates, and investigates the remnants of white supremacy that linger in our visual culture and iconography. Thanks to recent calls to remove contested monuments from public spaces, some of her subjects may be more well-known than others, such as her photographs of public monuments that she has physically covered or blocked from the viewers’ sight. But others are not so obvious. In the artist’s recent research, she has been honing in on more insidious modes of power and white supremacy—private and domestic aesthetics and gestures that often go unnoticed collectively but seem undeniably strange when confronted on their own.

In her exhibition nwl at The Luminary, Jones pointedly brings these aesthetics to light, which include domestic decorative objects like Greco-Roman-style white urns, and more public gestures made by white women posing repeatedly with contested monuments. Her first exhibition in St. Louis, nwl is an acronym for “nice white ladies”, a term that becomes increasingly ironic in this exhibition as Jones’s images interrogate the role white women have had in upholding white supremacy. Co-curated with The Racial Imaginary Institute, the exhibition not only shows the breadth and depth of Jones’ practice over the years, but also the deep roots of white supremacy, seeping into not only domestic aesthetics, but also white women’s very gestures, positions, and performances of power.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christina Nafziger: This is your first time showing it in St. Louis. Right?

Kelly Kristin Jones: Yes, this is my first time. My residency at The Luminary was a great chance to go down and roam around the city and make some new work. There are sites from St. Louis included in the show. I wanted to ensure that this conversation is about more than just one place. Questions around race and space are everywhere. My interest in contested monuments started when I was in Georgia, but I’ve climbed and covered monuments all over the Midwest and Southeast. I wanted to make sure that those images, those performances, and those sites were included in this larger show.

CN: Are there any specific works in the show that are of monuments or specific places in and around St. Louis?

KKJ: Yeah, in the back of the gallery there's the large black wall featuring an assortment of photographs of hands. In this new installation, images of monument hands are matched with images of white women's hands. I photographed these monument hands while in St. Louis, and some of the urns that are part of the standing sculpture in the show were collected from white women while I was in town as well.

CN: I noticed this element of tonality throughout the show, like in relation to the color of walls, but also the flesh-toned color gradient next to your photo of the marble bust. I would say towards the front of the show, towards the sculptural installation piece, there was a lot of whiter, lighter pieces. And then as you move further into the gallery, towards the black-painted wall, the pieces become darker. There’s a lot of literal lightness and darkness throughout the show.

KKJ: I appreciate that you noticed that. Obviously, there is a study of skin tone, but more than that, this is about its relationship to photography. Light and shadow. The show primarily features black and white images, and that felt important as well. The Luminary has these big, beautiful front windows that, depending on the time of day, are blazing with sunlight. When you travel back deeper and deeper into the heart of the space, the work goes deeper, darker, richer.

CN: Can you tell me about the different photos of hands, of white people's hands and hands of monuments, on the black-painted wall?

KKJ: On the back wall, surrounded by my Untitled series of moonlit garden shots, are images of hands. I’ve been collecting snapshots of white women posing next to monuments for a number of years and trying to figure out what to do with them. I’m trying to think about new ways of looking at not just monuments, but the white women who put them there.

While collecting, I started to notice the same sorts of gesturing that happen when these women posed for the camera. There are these really particular ways of holding one's body to present oneself as heroic, as beautiful, as powerful. I started noticing really strange similarities between these two series: white women posing with monuments and the white male monuments themselves.

CN: Yes! Are the photographs of women’s arms on the black wall all found photos?

KKJ: Yes. They're all found snapshots from this sort of ad hoc archive that I am building of white women posing with monuments. This all started several years ago. When my grandmother moved into an assisted living home, I was given her photo albums and discovered photo after photo of her posing with monuments. My grandfather took photographs of my grandmother posing with some of the same monuments that I am now working to cover up and undo. I have a lot of snapshots from my own family and friends, but I also go to garage sales, thrift stores, eBay, and Etsy, even a few antique shops just down the street from The Luminary.

CN: It's surprising to hear how common it is to pose with a monument for a photo. It's even more surprising seeing the similar gestures in the photographs you're presenting. I think the direction you've taken it is so brilliant and pointed because, by just showing the arms of the women, you are making it more universal. This could be anyone's grandmother or sister or daughter. Cropping the photos also makes it look more like a performative act, like a stage gesture. It's almost saying: these are the ways people perform in order to keep what power they have.

KKJ: Absolutely. And that is the story, right? This is a performance of power. What does it mean to be performing as a “nice white lady”? Or, a “good American”? I think that’s why my grandparents performed for the camera. I think they felt a pressure to perform their “Americanness” in order to prove that they were vacationing in the right way. I mean, what is a Kodak moment, right? This is all part of the conversation. It's about photography, it's about identity, it's about place. My work has always been about those things.

CN: The photographs that are directly next to the white women’s arms, the darker images. Those are photos that you took of arms of monuments, right? They are dark in contrast because they're bronze?

KKJ: Yes. So, on that back wall, half of the photographs are images that I made with my camera, which are the images of monument hands and arms. They are paired with the white women’s hands, which are all from found photographs that are part of this ongoing archive that I'm building.

CN: Are all the monuments that you've photographed depicting white folks?

KKJ: Yes, they are all of white male, historical figures.

CN: That wall is so visually striking, and the photographs of arms bring to mind for me Chicago-artist Nick Cave's arm sculptures that are painted bronze, because he’s also playing on gestures of monuments.

KKJ: Yeah, totally.

CN: There’s also this double entendre of the word ‘arms’, as in ‘to be armed’.

KKJ: In one of the photos there's actually one hand forming the shape of a gun.

CN: That’s right. It's interesting visually seeing these gestures, you realize how clear these signals are. Then you think about these gestures being in the public eye, and what that is signaling.

KKJ: Right. I've been taking pictures of these public monuments for a long time. But for this installation, I went back and reshot certain monuments in order to focus on the hands. Once you really start to study the gestures of these figures—it would be almost comical if it wasn't so scary.

And I don't name these monuments, I don't list all of the white dude names that I'm covering up, because it’s more about this idea of who is a hero. Who is important and what does that look like in the public space? How is that person, that idea, promoted? It's fascinating to see the choices made across time.

I’m also thinking about how photography has acted as this instrument of violent power since its inception. Photography has always serviced white supremacy, power, and privilege and continues to do so.

CN: I'm glad you brought up the role of photography within these structures of power. In the gallery space, when you turn away from the wall of photographs showing arms and hands, you see a photo of a marble bust with a large, flesh-toned gradient. Seeing this brings to mind how early camera companies did not make cameras that could capture darker skin tones or the range of darker skin tones. It would flatten it.

KKJ: Absolutely.

CN: Would you mind talking a little bit about the bust image and gradient?

KKJ: Yeah. So the gradient strip that's leaning against the wall is actually a foundation finder swatch for makeup that I scanned and printed at large scale. I was thinking about the limitations of photography. Again, from the very beginning, photo was developed by white people for white people. And the same is true for the beauty industry. That idea that "pale is beautiful” haunts both of these histories.

The majority of that wall features found print media. While collecting print ads, I started noticing that suddenly it was really “on-trend” to include these Greco Roman busts and other antiquities in the domestic space. Suddenly, Crate & Barrel and West Elm are pushing these urns and columns for your living room. That bust image in the show is a scan from a CB2 catalog I received in the mail.

I’ve been saving my junk mail, and I keep seeing fake bust after fake Greco Roman urn after fake white column being pushed by all sorts of home decor catalogs and companies, from the low end to the high end. I’ve been thinking about these objects for several years, these insidious symbols of white supremacy. There’s an image of a cotton field at sunset that's from a Better Homes and Garden Magazine advertising a plantation wedding.

CN: It’s very strange. I'm glad you brought up the image of the cotton field. The photograph is clearly supposed to be a beautiful landscape, but you can’t ignore the fact that it’s a cotton field.

KKJ: Totally.

CN: It’s also interesting because home decor gradients right now seem to be all whites and beiges — there’s an absence of color.

KKJ: Yes. That’s a whole other conversation. I understand in a sense why these large scale public monuments look the way they do and why they continue to stand tall for so many decades, despite our best efforts. But the interior space, domestic decor is something I’m still puzzling over.

CN: Yeah. It’s interesting, too, thinking about the line that goes through your work—from photos of monuments, to photos you took outside of houses in a suburban neighborhood, to then the domestic space. The sculptural piece in your show is a stack of white, Greco-style planters that you may find on someone’s front porch. So you're getting closer and closer to inside the home, these intimate spaces—spaces where you’d see these objects everyday.

KKJ:I think the gap is closing between the public or civic space and the private home space.

CN: Yeah. I think aesthetics and taste making is really interesting and definitely ties into your work.

Going back to the stacked planter sculpture of yours, how were these objects sourced?

KKJ: All of those planters were purchased secondhand from individuals, so I was driving to a lot of suburban homes and picking up planters. They’re all very lightweight, sort of cheap knockoffs, which I find that much more interesting. There’s a kind of aspirational element to it all.

CN: It’s interesting seeing this installation with stacked, towering objects versus a previous installation of yours I’ve seen where you piled a bunch of fake columns in a gallery. There’s this performance of wealth embedded into these towers of plants, or perhaps people just have these planters for the sake of showing that they fit into this aesthetic that is aspirational.

KKJ: Totally.

CN: I’m curious about the photographs where you are covering and blocking monuments in space, versus your newer work where you are cropping the image and focusing on gestures and body parts. I was wondering if there was an intention behind these two approaches spatially. One is more about the presence of these monuments in the public eye, and the other has more to do specifically with performing. There's a connection between seeing something in public, seeing the static monument, and then trying to perform it.

KKJ: I think that's a great point. None of this work is done. I continue to cover and conceal monuments both public and private in different ways. I'm looking for different ways of addressing and presenting this history, this question, this problem again and again and again. I want to be really nimble in my art practice and continue to approach the different means and modes of how this ‘white agenda’ is being pushed.

CN: I think the way you're doing that also points to how it's not singular. It's not in this one instance. It's not only in monuments, it’s not only in columns, it's not only in this place. You're showing it in different ways and showing that it’s all been intentional.

KKJ: It's a scatter shot, right? It's meant to sort of overwhelm from all sides. Whether it’s from CB2, from your public park, from everywhere. I mean, it's everywhere you turn. I would argue each of those shots fired requires a new way of looking, a new way of questioning. I think about this concept as a target and I'm just sort of throwing out different darts of my own making that hopefully land within a really complicated, really painful conversation.
Framed photograph artwork on a white wall depicting an abstracted building on top and greenery underneath.
You’ve got nice legs, kid, (2018). Photo credit: Virginia Harold.

White wall gallery with grey floors and artwork hung on the walls and standing in the center of the floor. A motion-blurred guest walks through the space.
Install of nwl at The Luminary. Photo credit: Virginia Harold.

White wall gallery with grey floors and six framed photograph artworks hanging in a 3x2 grid, each featuring a landscape of some time with a blank banner or poster at their center. Dodging Tools. Photo credit: Virginia Harold.

Corner of an exhibition space with a white wall on the left and a black wall on the right, each with contrasting work hung on them of hands. Impulses of the mob, (2022). Photo credit: Virginia Harold.

White wall gallery with grey floors and three framed photos of different sizes and subjects are hung in a row.
Left to right: Better Home & Gardens, (2022), A warm stone, (2022), Turkey in the Straw, (2022). Photo credit: Virginia Harold.

 Framed black and white photograph artwork hung on a black wall depicting a nature scene and an abstracted figure overlaid on top. Untitled (David), (2022). Photo credit: Virginia Harold.



Christina Nafziger (she/her) is a Chicago-based arts writer and editor who is interested in artists with research-based practices, the effect archiving has on memory and identity, and the ways in which archiving can alter and edit future histories.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY