On the warm Friday afternoon of June 4, the neighborhood of Astoria in Queens, New York was humming with life. Families were out on the streets, the local fish market was brimming with customers, and young people sipped from iced drinks at trendy cafes. On a side street, there’s a small music store called Astoria Music. That’s where I met Sandy Placido and Manny Rao, two Bronx-based activists who were preparing for a big event on the other side of the East River, the ninth and penultimate “Strike MoMA” action in front of the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan.
Placido, a historian at the City University of New York (CUNY), was to MC the event at MoMA. Rao, a drummer and community organizer, was to provide the beats. But for that, he needed new drumsticks, hence the detour to Astoria.
In the past few weeks, a coalition of activists and artists that calls itself the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF) has held weekly protests and online discussions to highlight the harm caused to communities worldwide by extractivist and predatory businesses that belong to several members of MoMA’s board. But beyond that, the activists are on a mission to shake up the discourse around museum funding and imagine a future — in this case, a “post-MoMA” future — in which these institutions devote more care to their local communities than to their billionaire donors. Hyperallergic accompanied Placido and Rao for an insider look at the grassroots organizing behind the Strike MoMA initiative.
This week’s protest turned the spotlight on MoMA trustee Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. Together with her husband, the Venezuelan media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, the couple has donated over 230 works of Latin American art to MoMA over the decades. In 2016, they established the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America at MoMA, which also offers fellowships to scholars and artists. But according to the protesters, these generous gifts to MoMA and multiple other museums worldwide, are tainted with blood.
Gustavo Cisneros sits on the board of directors of Barrick Gold, a multinational mining company that operates 15 gold mines around the world. One of the company’s most prolific gold mines is located near the city of Cotuí in the Dominican Republic, about 62 miles north of the capital city of Santo Domingo. The Pueblo Viejo mine, which Barrick started operating in 2013 with Newmont Goldcorp (Barrick owns 60% of the mine), yielded 542,000 ounces of gold in 2020, according to the company’s website. Barrick also says that the mine has “proven and probable” gold reserves of 6.2 million ounces. To extract these amounts of gold from minerals, the company has used toxic chemical compounds like cyanide and sulfur which have reportedly contaminated groundwater, air, and soil in the area.
In May, over 80 environmental organizations signed an open letter against Barrick, charging the company of widespread pollution, displacement of communities, and human rights abuses. “Already, about three out of four Dominicans depend on bottled water to survive,” the letter says. “Risks to water have ripple effects on human health, agriculture, food security, livelihoods, biodiversity and more.” Barrick Gold has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
For over a decade, cacao and plantain farmers in the Dominican Republic have been protesting against the environmental destruction that Barrick’s mining has caused to their communities, which has reportedly spread illness and damaged livestock and crops. The protests escalated last year when Barrick announced plans to expand the Pueblo Viejo mine to include a new tailings dam in the province of Monte Plata that will store toxic mining byproducts. According to the open letter, the planned expansion poses the risk of polluting twelve rivers originating from the province, including the Ozama River, which provides water to Santo Domingo. Protesters were met with police violence.
For Placido, who was born to Dominican immigrants, and Rao, who grew up on the island and immigrated to New York at age 15, this fight is personal. The two are also members of the groups the Third World Peoples’ Alliance and Dominicans United NYC. “It might be professionally risky for me to be active on this issue,” Placido told Hyperallergic outside the music store. “But I study the issue and care about my people who are asking us in the diaspora to make noise.”
Prior to the protest, Placido penned an article about Barrick’s harmful practices in the Dominican Republic. “One woman I met in Cotuí told me that Barrick’s contamination of the air, soil, and water has caused the lead levels in her blood to rise so much that her doctor must use a larger needle to extract the thickened fluid from her veins,” she wrote. “People at the encampment warned us not to dip our feet in the rivers, since many people who did so developed skin rashes and infections, and I was shown photographs of bleeding and peeling shins and ankles.”
In Astoria, the two activists were pushing a shopping cart filled with books, flyers, protest banners, and one large water jug. In a cafe next to the music store, Placido took the water jug out and mixed in red food dye to create “blood water” which would later be used in the protest to symbolize the “blood spilled for profit.”
Before taking an Uber to MoMA, the two activists handed out flyers to pedestrians on Astoria’s 31st Avenue, inviting them to join the protest. They also taped some of the flyers onto street light poles. While doing that, they shared that neither of them has ever stepped foot inside the Manhattan museum. “Museums always give me the vibe of places for rich white people,” Rao said. “They also hold a lot of objects that were stolen from our land.”
In the car, Placido read out from a 1493 letter that Christopher Columbus wrote to Luis De Sant Angel, announcing his discovery of “Hispaniola.”
“Hispaniola is a marvel,” the activist read, quoting Columbus. “Its hills and mountains, fine plains and open country, are rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages. The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers, most of which bear gold […] There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island.”
Columbus was referring to the same areas that Cisneros’ company is now mining for gold. “The farmer communities that are fighting Barrick today are descendants of the people who fought Columbus 529 years ago,” Placido explained.
When the two organizers and I arrived at MoMA, heavy rain showers broke, forcing a group of about 35 protesters to shelter beneath a scaffolding around a building across the street. There, Placido and Rao met with an older generation of Dominican immigrants, who have waged similar battles for years.
“I grew up drinking water from the Yuna River,” Joselin Almanzar, a taxi driver from New York, told Hyperallergic. “Now if you live in the Dominican Republic, you have to buy water.”
Alternating between Spanish and English, Placido cried through a bullhorn: “Water is a source more precious than gold”; “We were not discovered 529 years ago, we were invaded”; and “MoMA should be ashamed of itself.” Rao was on the drums, playing Afro-Caribbean ancestral music with another protester.
Around 5pm, Placido led the protesters to MoMA’s entrance, where they emptied a box of plantains on the floor. They chanted “Out, Out, Barrick Gold” in Spanish and performed a sacred Palo dance in a circle around the scattered fruits. At a climactic moment in the protest, Placido spilled the “blood water” she had prepared earlier onto the plantains while repeating, “They’re washing their hands with the blood of our people.”
MoMA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
As in previous weeks, MoMA’s security staff closed the museum’s doors and directed visitors who were already inside to another exit. Daniel Osorio and Marcela Gonzalez, two tourists from Colombia who had bought tickets online to the museum, were among several visitors who were turned away after the museum closed the entrance. The two were initially confused but after hearing what the protest was about, they became more understanding. “This a lot more exciting than MoMA,” Osorio joked.
But not everyone approved of the protest. A couple that came out of the adjacent ultra-luxury Museum Tower on West 53rd were shaking their head as they passed by the demonstrators. “Seriously?” the woman seethed.
Toward the tail end of the protest, the skies cleared and the weather brightened, and the protest turned into an outdoor celebration. Participants danced to upbeat bachata music and snacked on Caribbean foods (fried plantains, potatoes, and sausage) that were handed out by the organizers.
“We came here to show MoMA that there’s a large Dominican population in New York that they would have to confront,” Placido told Hyperallergic at the end of a long day. “They will be hearing more from us.”