Students on SUNY’s college campus in Buffalo, New York recently got an uncomfortable trip back in time with the public works of art student, Ashley Powell. Last week, Powell hung “Blacks Only” and “Whites Only” signs outside of bathrooms and water fountains throughout a dorm on the college campus. Unaware that these were part of a conceptual art piece, students and faculty were obviously shocked by the messages that harken back to the era of Jim Crow laws.
The artist, who herself is black, said that it was an expression of her pain and commentary on the white privilege that exists on the campus.
“Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does,” she wrote. “Any white person who would walk past these signs without ripping them down shows a disturbing compliance with this system.”
Though the message she was attempting to convey is now clear, many students and fellow artists disagree with her method of delivery. Student Jefry Taveras said in a BSU meeting “As an artist, I respect you as an artist, but you should know racism isn’t art, it’s a reality and traumatizing.”
Powell has posted lengthy explanations on her Facebook page and continues to stand by her actions despite negative reaction from the public.
While we’ve come a long way since segregation, the topic of race and racism in the U.S. is as hot as ever. A recent pole conducted by PBS Newshour and Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion revealed that 60 percent of whites felt race relations were worse than they were a year ago, while 58 percent of blacks felt the same. This is likely due to racially driven police brutality and reactionary activist movement like Black Lives Matter. The study also stated that 76 percent of blacks feel they don’t have the same opportunities for employment as a white person.
So is a conceptual art piece like Powells’ more timely than ever? And if so, is the real question here her method and venue?
If you would like to participate more in the dialogue about art that examines race, RSVP for the Studio Museum‘s upcoming panel discussion, Black Matters: 12 African-American Male Artists, on September 27th at 7pm.