Art is meant to be controversial and daring, but every once in awhile a moment comes when we must ask whether there are some lines that art shouldn’t cross. A recent incident at SUNY Buffalo provoked these questions in an art instillation intended to promote discourse about America’s history of race relations.
Ashley Powell, a fine arts graduate student at UB, admitted to hanging “White Only” and “Black Only” signs on campus, which sparked outrage and nationwide discussion. Unsurprisingly, the art project deeply upset and offended many. Students, both black and white, were appalled and accused Powell’s project of being racist.
In a statement to The New York Times, Powell said her project, titled “Our Compliance” was meant to reveal persisting white privilege. It was part of a class called “Installation: Urban Space,” which required students to create an installation piece on campus.
“Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people and oppress another,” Powell said. “40 to 50 years ago, these structures were visibly apparent and physically graspable through the existence of signs that looked exactly like the signs I put up. Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does.”
Despite her defense, her actions might not have been in the best taste. To arrive at school one morning, an environment where you should feel safe and comfortable, and be confronted by such signs without any forewarning would understandably cause a shock to the system. Powell could have proven her point in a less radical, more controlled and less confrontational way.
But then perhaps tastefulness is not a priority when trying to elicit a reaction to a longstanding and deeply upsetting issue such as this. In her defense, this so-called radical act is not at all unheard of. It’s difficult to call the installation racist by sheer virtue of the fact that Powell, who is black herself, is using this to point out racism that is unfortunately still present in our society, especially from the perspective of a victim. To call this racist and an act of terrorism is to ignore that the very same signs were hung up throughout our nation mere decades ago, and back then it was not in the context of an art project, but in a rule of society. Powell knows it’s racist — that’s why she did it.
Reportedly, the assignment required Powell to make an installment in an urban area that involved time. With that in mind, Powell’s intention makes more sense: her project forces us to harken back to a past that many of us weren’t around to experience, but that is still our history, and one that we should own up to however unjust and deplorable it may have been. It is often the truth that hurts the most. Perhaps people weren’t so much offended because they thought this project was racist, but because it served as a painful reminder of a past that we would like to forget.
Powell’s execution of the project most likely wasn’t the best way to get this message across, but if her objective was to provoke thought and discussion, she certainly succeeded. As for whether art should be mindful of certain boundaries, when it comes to social commentary, we must first ask ourselves why we react the way we do and what that means for our generation and our world.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 22 print edition. Email Daria Butler at [email protected]