Two artists used Confederate imagery in an exhibit; then came calls to remove it
Word about the art exhibit spread across the campus of Mary Baldwin University almost as soon as the show opened at the Staunton, Virginia, school. It was Nov. 5, just a day before the divisive midterm elections. Senior Tanisha Parson remembers hearing about the controversial use of Confederate monuments, which were incorporated as silhouettes into dozens of art pieces, before she even reached the doors of the Lyda B. Hunt Gallery. Still, she was not prepared for what she saw.
One installation in the show included a bathroom sink with air fresheners - shaped like the silhouettes of statues of Confederate leaders - hanging from it. A medicine cabinet was mounted above the sink, and, inside, pill bottles containing watermelon seeds were labeled "make as directed."
"I was just so distraught. I was like, 'Make?' " said Parson, who is black and a studio art major. "What is this - breeding slaves?"
Danielle Luokkanen, a senior studio art major who is white and helped install some of the pieces while working at the Hunt Gallery, described the show as a series of "thinly veiled microaggressions."
No one was more surprised by these reactions than the artists behind the exhibit, titled "Relevant/Scrap." Jere Williams, 49, is a printmaker and sculptor whose work has been shown in galleries and won awards. His creative partner Pam Sutherland, 50, is an award-winning collage and mixed-media artist. The two white artists intended for the exhibit to be provocative and to spark a dialogue, but they didn't expect a firestorm.
Students wanted an explanation for the use of such loaded imagery. During the opening, they asked incisive questions about the artists' intent. "They were forceful," said Martha Walker, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, "and they kept hitting the same points when they didn't really get answers that were satisfying them."
The next day, the administration of the small private liberal arts college faced growing discontent among students and, mindful of other recent conflicts over Confederate statues, worried that the art might attract hate groups. The gallery's director contacted the artists by phone, and, although it's unclear who proposed removing the exhibit, both the director and the artists agreed to do so. Within 48 hours of its premiere, the art came down.
One side had clearly prevailed, but was it a victory for tolerance or censorship? When I talked with Williams and Sutherland in Richmond, Virginia, in December, they still seemed shellshocked. The artwork, much of it wrapped in brown paper, was scattered inside their loftlike art studio at Collegiate School, the high school where they both teach.
They walked me through the genesis of the exhibit. Williams explained how he had painted tobacco juice over a stencil of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The stencil was created from a photo of a statue erected 112 years ago and still standing on Richmond's Monument Avenue. The juice stained the pulp a golden brown. Peeling off the stencil, Williams revealed a ghostly image: the silhouette of Davis, arm extended and fingers bent.
"This gesture of the hand looks so much like a hook," said Sutherland. She thought the silhouette represented a duality of opinions about statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers. Some people want to see them preserved. Others want to see them destroyed. "The hand is beckoning," she said, "and the hand itself is sinister."
The duo churned out silhouette after silhouette using symbolic substances: sour cream to represent whites who've soured toward these monuments, and molasses, which was once produced by some antebellum plantations. Many prints remained simple silhouettes. Others were altered by Sutherland, who covered one with X's and cut up another.
She and Williams said the pieces were an attempt to address a shared pain: the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017, when white nationalists converged to defend a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and a counterprotester was killed. Stunned that the deadly clash could happen so close to home, Williams wondered, "Do we just do the same old stuff?"
For years, the two had been planning an exhibit on gender at Baldwin. After Charlottesville, they decided to show their new pieces about Confederate statues instead. They said they had never been so excited about an exhibit, but they also knew there was a risk. Sutherland recalled working on a drawing - one with watermelon vines wrapping around the neck of a Confederate statue - when a black colleague at Collegiate warned her: "The minute they know you're white, and they see those watermelons, it's all over."
Still, Sutherland thought her intent would be clear. "When did empathy become racist?" she recalled thinking as she drove back to Richmond after the opening and in the months since. "As a white artist, it's almost like a permission," she said to me later. Banging the table, she added, "Why can't I use that watermelon? ... Who are you to tell me - you non-art person?"
Williams, who remained understated, acknowledged that they could have handled the opening better. Where students wanted answers about the works' meaning, the pair focused on the process of making art. "We were talking the art language of an art opening," he explained. "We didn't do the whole divulging of our characters."
Joy Garnett, program associate for the National Coalition Against Censorship, said the school had other options than taking the art down. It could have provided more context around the exhibit, such as temporary dividers to conceal the art and signs cautioning visitors on the difficult subject matter. After the exhibit closed, Baldwin did hold listening sessions, but only students and faculty were allowed to attend, according to school spokeswoman Liesel Crosier. The sessions, argued Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America, a nonprofit devoted to defending freedom of speech, "would have likely been much richer if the exhibit were able to continue."
Garnett also found fault with the artists, who she said need to understand the communities where they are showing their work. More than half of Baldwin's residential students are not white. "It's not about avoiding offending people," Garnett said. "It's about how do you couch the offense in a way that's productive."
A few weeks after visiting the artists, I met with some of the students who were alarmed by Williams and Sutherland's work. The students said the artists' race wasn't an issue. "Even if this was a black person, I'd still be upset," said Parson.
Several of them said the art verged on hate speech. That's why they wanted it removed. When I told Friedman this, he was quick to point out that there is no legal definition of hate speech in the United States. No matter how controversial a piece of art is, he said, it "still may have value as a provocative reminder of what we collectively find as distasteful or hateful or inappropriate."
Looking back, the artists told me, a visual arts school would likely have responded better, and in time, they hope the work will show again. Still, Williams acknowledged, "it's going to take a brave gallery."
This article was written by Mark Lynn Ferguson, a reporter for The Washington Post.