A controversial public art piece stood less than four hours on the University of Iowa Pentacrest before it was removed amid public protest.
A gathering of UI students responded to the statue — a roughly seven foot tall Ku Klux Klan robe emblazoned with tar screen prints portraying newspaper articles depicting coverage of racial tensions, riots and killings dating as far back as 1908 to as recent as 2010 — by amassing at UI President Sally Mason’s office in Jessup Hall before relocating to the Iowa Memorial Union’s Bijou Cinema to express outrage over the piece to UI officials including Vice President of Student Life Tom Rocklin and Georgina Dodge, the UI’s Chief Diversity Officer.
One of those students, 18-year-old Tayo Ajose, a junior in biomedical engineering, said she couldn’t believe what she saw when she witnessed the statue Friday morning near the intersection of Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue — the same location residents have gathered in recent weeks in protest and silent mourning over racially fueled issues including the death of teenager Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a white police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.
“It almost seemed like getting spit in the face because we had a solidarity meeting in the exact same spot,” Ajose said.
The man behind the sculpture, UI faculty member and Grant Wood Art Colony Printmaking Fellow Serhat Tanyolacar, 38, said the hope behind the creation of the robed statue was that the haunting reminders of negative moments in American history might lead to progress.
“I have hopes as an artist and as an activist that all the horrible events will trigger something positive,” Turkish born Tanyolacar said Friday morning before the statue was removed. “I think more and more we should be more active and stop ignoring what is going on.”
After the statue was removed at about 10:30 a.m. by officers with the University of Iowa Police Department for a lack of a permit to display the item, Tanyolacar said he was hurt by the public’s reaction.
“I don’t think it is fair to attack, for me to be under fire now,” he said. “As an educator, as an artist as an activist, I feel extremely hurt.”
However, UI officials said the artwork was not approved by or sanctioned by the university and depicted racist material found offensive by members of the community.
“The University of Iowa is a diverse community with no tolerance for racism, and artwork that was briefly displayed on the Pentacrest this morning was deeply offensive to members of our community,” according to a statement from the UI’s Office of Strategic Communications. “The University of Iowa considers all forms of racism abhorrent and is deeply committed to the principles of inclusion and acceptance. There is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus.”
The statue, which Tanyolacar installed at 7 a.m. and said would have been taken down at the end of the day, was actually created in 2010 following the shooting of a security guard by white supremacist James von Brunn June 10, 2009 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.
Tanyolacar said he wore the robe during a protest march after the D.C. shooting and most recently the piece was on display at a Florida museum when tensions began to ignite in Ferguson.
Tanyolacar said nationwide protests, including in Iowa City, in response to the decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson last month were the reason for his decision to bring the statue to the Pentacrest.
Tanyolacar said he plans to keep the art piece active, with the next location possibly being Ferguson.
For students like Ajose, the concerns and outrage sparked by Friday’s statue need to result in some form of change.
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“I honestly just want to see racial competency, training and racial sensitivity in more abundance because Iowa brags of its diversity and we need to have that racial competence and training,” she said.