On the second floor of Anderson Hall there is a painting of Black and white girls arranged in a circular pattern. The Black girls have sad expressions on their faces, with large exaggerated physical features. On their backs, in addition to rinds of watermelon, are fully-clothed white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired girls imagined as angels.
This wall painting, titled “Demonization of Black Girls and Women,” was created in October 2016 by the African-American artist Jennifer Cruté, who said her work heavily mirrors her own experiences. The painting is part of the Intellectual Heritage Program’s exhibit “A Cosmic Injustice,” which explores white supremacy and the plunder of Black bodies.
“You have to put a jester hat on any oppressor,” Cruté told Bitch Media. “I feel that the skill of dark humor … helps me draw a funny image with a message that may disturb, but will most certainly inform and hopefully educate.”
But now Professor and chair Molefi Asante from the Africology and African American studies department is adamant about the removal of the work. He said faculty members and students in his department were upset by it.
“The piece may have had different intentions, but in the context of these times it was very insensitive to African people and African-American students and particularly to women,” Asante said. “Some students asked us why were they paying tuition to Temple to be mistreated like that.”
While I understand that some may be upset by the work, I find it powerful. It provides a visualization of the unsettling effects of white supremacy. And regardless of whether you like the work, it’s important to remember that freedom of expression is a necessary right that should not be restricted just because some viewers are offended. Taking down this artwork would set an unfavorable precedent that would allow for departments and the university administration to censor expression in other ways on Main Campus.
“I’m opposed to the concept of censorship,” said Gerald Silk, a modern and contemporary art professor. “Artists should be allowed to express themselves.”
“If you oppose one type of work then what’s to prevent you from opposing another type,” Silk added. “When a work moves into the public and produces difficulty, the best way to deal with it is to have a constructive discussion.”
Instead of just calling for the work to be taken down, opponents of the piece should join with the Intellectual Heritage Program and host a forum for students to discuss their concerns. This discussion should be not only about the artwork, but also about how to address white supremacy and the stereotypes of Black women and girls.
I also think it’s concerning that some want to censor art made by Cruté, who is a Black woman herself. Just because the artwork may make some people uncomfortable, this doesn’t mean Cruté’s thoughts and experiences should be dismissed with the removal of her art.
In fact, if this painting makes people feel uncomfortable, that is a good thing. Dealing with subjects like racial oppression should make people feel unsettled. And hopefully, people will speak out when they see others misrepresented or dehumanized.
Some students, however, still maintain that the artwork is offensive, expressing their frustrations on social media.
Unique Ratcliff, a junior journalism major, visited “Demonization of Black Girls and Women” for herself after she saw her friend post a picture of it on Snapchat.
“I feel like they had no business posting it in the first place because the piece is very offensive and definitely needs an explanation from the department,” Ratcliff said. “What was the purpose even hanging it up?”
Douglas Greenfield, associate director of the Intellectual Heritage Program, does not want to see the painting taken down.
“I see this as an issue of artistic freedom,” Greenfield said. “I think it’s a problem to demand the suppression of an artistic statement.”
Art is meant to push boundaries and make people step out of their comfort zones. So, it seems as though the piece is serving its purpose.
In the upcoming weeks, there will be a meeting among leaders of the Intellectual Heritage Program and Africology and African American studies department alongside Provost JoAnne Epps to discuss the fate of the work.
I maintain that the artwork must remain up to safeguard artistic expression and to continue to provoke discussion. After all, that’s exactly its purpose.
UPDATE: Since reporting for this column occurred, the wall painting in Anderson Hall has been removed and destroyed, according to an anonymous source in the Intellectual Heritage Program.
Cierra Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.