After Art And Racial Trauma Collide On Campus

By Noah Berlatsky

“Whites Only” signs are supposed to be a relic of the past, an abandoned feature of the Jim Crow south and American apartheid. In September of last year, however, students at the University of Buffalo found “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” signs attached to drinking fountains across campus — a depressing and frightening reminder of the persistence of segregation and racism.

At first, many students believed the signs had been placed by white supremacists, or as a way to intimidate black students on campus. In fact, though, the signs were part of an public art installation by Ashley Powell, a black MFA student.

Powell’s project touched off a heated debate about acceptable speech and the place of art on campus. The Black Student Union spoke out forcefully against the project, demanding that the president of the college, Satish K. Tripathi, “Insist that the work is not art.” The BSU went on: “These signs evoked such a mass of negative emotions from students, and regardless of the intentions, people still suffered.”

In her own statement, Powell explained that her intention with the piece was to highlight ongoing racism, and to demand action, and accountability, from white people. “Any white person who would walk past these signs without ripping them down shows a very disturbing compliance with this system that non-white people suffer from,” her statement said. “I apologize for the extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about in many people. I apologize if you were hurt, but I do not apologize for what I did.” She added, “I do not believe that there can be social healing without first coming to terms with and expressing our own pain, rage, and trauma.”

Powell is originally from the southeast side of Chicago; “I actually knew that I wanted to be an artist at a very young age,” she told me in an email interview. She had her first art class when she transferred to a magnet school in third grade. “I was eight years-old when I first told my parents I was going to be an artist when I grew up,” she said. She got her BFA at Southeast Missouri State University, and then went to the University of Buffalo for her MFA.

The water fountain project, called Our Compliance, was in response to a prompt in Powell’s Installation: Urban Spaces art course. “We were told to make a project that deals with time in some way,” she said. As a black artist whose work deals with race, she wanted to address the way in which past racial trauma, and past racial violence, are still ongoing. “The race issues that are purported to be antiquated are obviously very active today,” she said.

“So just because these signs are no longer institutionally enforced, the ideologies they instilled are still very much alive and well. It is pivotal that non-white people never forget about the racial structures in place that affect our lives daily. It is also important for white people to confront and go against the system that privileges and benefits them, at our own detriment.”

The signs, she said, “gave white people the chance and agency to start practicing anti-racism and non-white people the reminder to never become comfortable in a society strife with racism.”

University president Satish Tripathi acknowledged that “Arts are controversial,” but suggested that there needed to be a policy to clearly label art, and segment aesthetics off so as to avoid the reactions provoked by Powell’s piece. “[W]hen it’s put on the wall, one should say that this is art. So there must be a policy on the campus,” he said.

In her statement, though, Powell argued that art should not be confined to a museum. “Art is not an object,” she wrote. “It isn’t only a painting or sculpture, and it does not only belong in a gallery. Art finds a way to say what could not be said before.” In our interview, she added that, “To me, the process for creating art is infusing experience, intellect, research, theory, aspirations, beliefs, criticism, articulation, and conviction all into creative activity.” Her art project, she said, is important “because it offers an opportunity for people to critically contemplate and address an issue that they are otherwise” reluctant to think about. She pointed to the work of artists like Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Mendi & Keith Obadike, Adrian Piper, Wayne Hodge, and Lorna Simpson as inspirations. Art, she argues, should confront people; it shouldn’t be cordoned off.

In some ways, the confrontation at the University of Buffalo could be seen as productive. The Black Student Union pointed out that “University Police dispatchers responding via telephone dismissed the students’ feelings of fear by making insensitive statements like: ‘Why are you so upset over a sign?’” If the art project leads to a reckoning with police institutional indifference towards, and lack of understanding of, racism, that would surely be a good thing.

The effort to restrict public art projects and student expression, though, is less helpful. Angus Johnston, a scholar of student activism at the City University of New York, told me that Buffalo is approaching the issue through regulations on postering, so that art projects must be labeled as such. Making students subject to punishment if they don’t protest, or speak, in the right way can have a chilling effect on all student speech. “I think students should generally be able to poster and chalk and so on with very few limits, and generally without fear of disciplinary action,” Johnston told me.

Powell herself was concerned that the focus of the response to her piece was on regulating art, rather than on the broader issues of racism that she was trying to address. Critics of the project, she said, “unfortunately attack what they perceive as a representation of a problem, instead of attacking the overall problem itself.” She added that those calling for her to be punished by the university “utilize the same oppressive tools of the systems they purport to be against.” In her statement, she concluded that the reaction to her piece had only confirmed her belief that it was necessary. “It is a delusion to believe that we can change society without first changing ourselves,” she said, “and from the response of this art project, my practice is affirmed and I stand steadfast in knowing that this change direly needs to occur.”

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Lead image credit: Joshme17, Flickr