The University of Chicago whitewashed a mural created by visiting artists to the school without consulting the artists or the organizer of their visit. The school says the mural was painted over in response to complaints from local residents in the neighborhood where it was painted, but the artists involved are calling it censorship.
This past spring, artist and University of Chicago lecturer Katherine Desjardins brought members of the Montreal artist collaborative En Masse to do a residency at the school. After working with Desjardins’s large-scale drawing class on a collage project for a week, the En Masse artists spent Friday, May 16, working with local street artists and a youth group on the mural in question. The wall was part of an abandoned muffler shop on the South Side of the city, in the neighborhood of Washington Park, according to Chicago magazine, which first broke the story. Although En Masse was in town through the university’s visiting artist program, the wall was secured with the help of the new Washington Park Arts Incubator, an outpost of artist Theaster Gates’s Arts and Public Life Initiative at the school.
“Part of the premise of the project, as I proposed it, was the creation of the mural as part of a process of having a dialogue not only between Chicago street artists, many of whom don’t work together, but between artists and community,” Desjardins told Hyperallergic. “Part of the scenario was that these guys were going to be there for an entire day, and there would be opportunity for the community to have a dialogue with the artists as the mural went up. It was all about interaction.”
That is how the day panned out, according to Jason Botkin, co-founder of En Masse. “We received a massive amount of positive encouragement from people throughout the community as we worked on it,” he told Hyperallergic. For that reason, it came as a shock when, on June 20, a staff member at the Incubator named Miguel Aguilar — who also works as a graffiti artist under the name Kane One — posted a photo on Instagram of the mural partially whitewashed. The caption read, “Grand opening, grand closing.” (The post has since been removed and the account set to private.)
In the interim, although Botkin was unaware of any of it, a lot had transpired. “Not long after the mural was put up, an 18-year-old was murdered in the immediate vicinity,” says Ken Stewart, associate director of arts initiatives and strategic planning at Arts and Public Life. Local residents began complaining about the mural, particularly an image it contained of a young boy holding a gun and a stuffed animal — though it’s unclear if these complaints began before or after the murder.
Some brought their concerns to the office of Alderman Pat Dowell, who contacted and began conversations with the university, including staff from the the incubator and Arts and Public Life. Dowell later issued a joint statement with Theaster Gates, claiming, “Several complaints were made that the mural was offensive containing ‘negative images and gang symbols.’” Botkin says the mural did not contain gang symbols and explains that “that wall was a tribute to a friend and local street artist that passed away recently named Brooks.”
No one involved in the discussions surrounding the mural reached out to him, though, nor to any of the other artists who worked on the wall (14 total). Desjardins did receive a “panicked phone call” from someone at the incubator, who told her, “‘The alderperson is about to paint over the mural, and we’ve had so much public outcry.’ I was flabbergasted,” she said. About 10 minutes later, she got a call back saying they would hold off on painting over the mural and hold a community meeting instead. “I said, ‘This is exactly what we want. We want some kind of educational moment here. I want them to meet the artists, to know that they’re not just gang members, destructive.”
But the community meeting never took place. Desjardins heard nothing further until Aguilar’s June 20 Instagram post, at which point the mural was already in the process of being buffed.
“We don’t have an issue with the fact that the community didn’t like the work — that’s perfectly OK,” says Botkin. “What happened, though, the way that the wall was taken down before the artists were approached, basically became an issue of censorship. The tragedy of this is you waste an extremely valuable opportunity to sit down with the community and to at least articulate our intentions. As a group of practicing street artists, these people have really strong relationships with their communities and feel responsibility. The issue was: why were people who were entrusted with dealing with this wall and situation, why did they not contact us before taking it down?”
“I cannot speak much to the internal conversations that took place,” said Stewart, when Hyperallergic asked him that question. “I can say that there was an extreme sensitivity to the question of whether to take it down, and the decision to follow through with it was taken very seriously. From the beginning, it was understood that the mural would be temporary, and the Arts and Public Life Initiative was but one voice in the conversations leading up to its covering.”
For her part, Desjardins says she understands the tough position faced by the incubator and Arts and Public Life, but echoes Botkin’s sentiment regarding a lost opportunity for discussion between the community and artists. “It’s crazily ironic because the whole premise of the project was that moment of dialogue,” she said. “Everyone was on board that we’re creating this temporary piece of artwork to instigate dialogue.”
“The other thing that makes this complicated is that it’s not just the Arts Incubator,” Desjardins continued. “It has to do with local politicians and local community groups and their involvement with politicians. What I would like to see come out of this is not only a discussion about the really incredible and fantastic culture of street art in Chicago, but a new kind of debate over the definition of what is public art, what is street art? Because it’s about young people. The members of the community, they’re of a whole different time period, they have a whole different aesthetic and sensibility about what is beneficial public art, and they’re not communicating with younger members of their community, who are extraordinarily talented people who hide. What can come out of giving a voice to this important creative young energy in so-called underserved areas of the city?”
The Incubator has since announced a plan to turn the wall into a spot for rotating murals, with community discussion in advance. “I applaud all of that — this is great,” said Botkin, who, despite sending a letter to the school endorsed by all the artists who worked on the project, has not received anything approaching an apology. “But we do not see here any responsibility being taken towards why nobody was contacted.”
Fortunately, he added, “the great thing about art and what we do is: we’ll just go out and paint another wall.”