Another Minnesota college is embroiled in controversy after a group of Muslim students expressed outrage over “offensive” art. Last month, Macalester College—a liberal arts college just three miles from Hamline University, where a similar controversy involving an adjunct professor of art history erupted in December—briefly closed an exhibit by an Iranian-American artist amid student claims that some of the works on display caused “harm “.
Although the school later reinstated the art exhibit, it was not without warning. Now pages of construction paper have been placed on the gallery’s glass doors to shield the work from view, along with a “content warning”. The incident is another example of university administrators giving in to unreasonable student demands and setting a troubling precedent that paves the way for further censorship.
On January 27, an exhibition by Iranian-American artist Taravat Talepasand opened at Macalester College’s Law Warschaw Gallery. According to a statement accompanying the exhibition, the work “explores cultural taboos as reflected in gender and political authority.” It includes works such as a sculpture with the inscription “Woman, Life, Freedom” in English and Farsi, a watercolor of a man beheading two women, and a painting depicting a teddy bear and a Ken doll, so-called. Muhammad meets Jesus.
However, a few papers caused the anger of students. Two drawings, Blasphemy X and Blasphemy IX show niqab-wearing women lifting their dresses to reveal their underwear. A series of porcelain sculptures depict women completely veiled except for comically exaggerated breasts.
The exhibit “just feels a bit targeted because there aren’t that many Muslim students here,” said one student who sent a petition condemning the work. Sahan magazine. “In a predominantly white institution, when I look at who attends school, who enters this exhibition, without understanding and nuance, then it is quite harmful.”
“The decision to mount this exhibition and continue with it despite the damage it is causing is a deeply problematic issue,” the petition reads. “It targets and hurts the already small community that exists on this campus.” The petition has only gathered 80 signatures so far, but it seems that was more than enough to prompt the administrators to take action.
The school temporarily closed the exhibit, raising black curtains to obscure the art. Later, administrators sent an email to the entire campus announcing that there would be few changes, although they would reopen the exhibit because of “the value and importance of artistic expression.” The school has now placed several sheets of construction paper over the glass doors leading into the gallery to “prevent inadvertent or insufficient viewing of certain works”, and posted a warning about the content.
“Unfortunately, while the Taravat exhibit was installed, we did not take the necessary steps to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and awareness of the possible impact of art. We apologize for this and the harm it caused,” administrators wrote in an email.
Talepasand said Sahan magazine although at first she didn’t object to the brief closure after hearing about the student outrage, “Nobody told me about the black curtain covering all the windows. That’s a whole other level of censorship.” Talepasand also addressed the wording of the content warning, which states that the exhibit “contains images of sexuality and violence that may be disturbing or unacceptable to some viewers.” She called it a “violation”.
The case is likely “the first time a college has used the unusual phrase ‘non-consensual viewing of certain acts,'” wrote Sarah McLaughlin, director of the targeted advocacy program at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a First Amendment nonprofit. “It’s frankly a pretty sinister way of defining controversial images: not just as something that might offend or upset, but as something that violates the viewer’s casual consent. It’s a comically bad lesson to teach students.”
While it is good news that Macalester has decided to reopen the gallery, school administrators should not have bowed to student anger and closed it in the first place. Furthermore, the use of content warnings and the visual blocking of art still sends the message that if art offends students’ religious sensibilities, Macalester administrators are happy to hide it.
“My artworks are unapologetic,” Talepasand said Sahan magazine. “I do work that finds similarities, not just differences, between East and West and how, in many ways, they are parallel. Sometimes it can be very political. Sometimes it can be very controversial.”