A controversial gallery exhibition was taken down within five days of its debut at Arkansas Tech University’s (ATU) Norman Hall Gallery after several students of color deemed it “racially insensitive.” Following the complaints, Dominique Simmons, a White artist from Little Rock, Arkansas, reportedly took back her artwork, which addressed racial injustices in the South, and the exhibition was canceled on January 14.
Simmons’s exhibition was centered on “memories of objects and memories of past events,” according to her statement attached to one of the gallery’s walls. The offending works in question were a sculpture called “KLAN BRIDE” (2023), featuring a swooping, ghostly form made from white floral lace and a white tulle-like fabric fashioned into a Klan hood with singed edges; and a 2021 wall piece featuring a sculpted Klan member with an open book encased in a frame with a sculpted, minstrelsy-aligned figure of a Black woman with a banjo seated on top.
In her statement, Simmons went on to describe her intentions of reconciling with the legacy of her Southern heritage.
“I am a child of the South,” she wrote. “As a thinking person, I abhor the evil and revel in the good found in our history. (Racism is bad, but southern music and literature are good.) As an artist I also embrace the evil, because it is integral to the form and content of my work. Acknowledging the past, good and bad is not only right, but makes art and story more interesting.”
After concerns about the exhibition’s racial insensitivity were raised on campus, Arkansas Tech University issued a statement on January 13 indicating that the institution is “committed to protecting First Amendment rights” while it closes the exhibition temporarily so that Simmons can speak with the offended parties and determine which works will stay up through the remainder of the show. Simmons was not immediately available for Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
“This includes protecting artistic expression as well as free speech,” ATU president Robin E. Bowen continued in the statement. “This often requires us to reflect on and grapple with complex societal issues. The artist has requested to meet with those who have concerns, and, after the meeting, determine which works will remain on display.”
Last week, the African American Student Association (AASA) took to Instagram to lambast the exhibition, stating that as a White woman, Simmons has “no place attempting to communicate the issues, struggles, trauma, and history that involve the black community.”
AASA’s current president, Jace Bridges, told Hyperallergic that Simmons’s personal history wasn’t something that “she needed to express on a campus of Black and Brown people.”
“I just felt the whole thing was unnecessary,” Bridges said. “Reading the artist statement didn’t really explain the point of the art other than to express her personal/family heritage, which I felt was odd because personally, I wouldn’t express my family’s heritage if it was, you know, racist or had racial undertones.”
In the same post, the AASA also responded to the university’s statement regarding the First Amendment, highlighting that people often forget “having the freedom not to speak at all — especially when the message is not [theirs] to convey.”
By January 14, ATU issued another statement disclosing that the exhibition was canceled per Simmons’s request, two days prior to the demonstration that was folded into the AASA’s MLK Day march on campus.
When asked about how Simmons’s works were featured in the first place, a spokesperson for the university told Hyperallergic that “the content of the work was not known until it was received by the ATU Department of Art for display,” which is atypical as artists are usually instructed to provide a full catalogue detailing all the included works prior to their arrival onsite.
The free speech advocacy organization PEN America criticized the exhibition’s closure as it said it denied the university as a whole an opportunity to reflect on the “response it elicited.” However, the university spokesperson confirmed that “all of the involved parties utilized their First Amendment rights.”
“The work was displayed by the artist, members of the university community expressed their concerns about some of the pieces and the artist made the decision to cancel the exhibit,” the spokesperson said.
Nevertheless, according to Bridges, the work wasn’t worth going up to bat for anyways.
“I just don’t see a way where it appeals to anybody,” he said, zooming out from the racialized elements of the works. “Like aesthetically it wasn’t really pleasing. The artistic value wasn’t really there. The deeper meaning we look for in art and expression wasn’t there either.”
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As a Black artist that went through a very racist “but we have a Black president” university, I think that the artwork is interesting, but that Simmons doesn’t seem prepared to be in true dialogue with the topics she wants to wade into. That artist’s statement makes that clear and I’m wondering what the process was in choosing her. If everything is “good” on one side (and it was just clumsy communications), then this could just be coming after a bevy of other related issues on campus and this choice feels like the final straw. I’m glad that the artist is going to speak with the student group though if there are underlying issues with the campus (likely) this won’t do much but serve as a bandaid in the best case.
As an artist who is from Cuba, but was raised in the Deep South in the 60’s, I can sympathize with both view points. For me an alarm goes off when the sound of censorship to art making is raised, perhaps because of the horrendous crimes to humanity, and censorship that the Cuban government has imposed on artist for speaking out in their work. When you censor once then you open the door to many forms of silencing. Who decides what should be allowed and what should not?
It is unfortunate that the artist decided to take her down before she was able to speak to the offended audience and explain her work more clearly. If the work was about her ties to her familial past, and her remorse, to that connection, then who is to say that she not be allowed to speak of her history? These things must be aired out to clean.
Imagine if Fassbinder had been censored for making his movies about the German shame of its past? Or more recently the paintings of Philip Guston and his cartoonish klansmen?
To make art about complicated, personal topics, that are social and political issues, is not an easy work to make. And the artist must be very aware when treading in these murky depths. Awareness of the impact of certain images to others is mandatory for such work. But to sensor with out a trial is not only unjust, it is dangerous to our freedom of expression.
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