University of Iowa President Mason apologizes for UI's response to racially-charged art

Faculty member behind the statue is not facing university consequences

A public art piece created by University of Iowa faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar stood on the UI Pentacrest for less th
A public art piece created by University of Iowa faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar stood on the UI Pentacrest for less than four hours before it was removed. (Mitchell Schmidt/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Echoing the sentiment of a growing group of “Hawkeyes” who have voiced concern, if not outrage, over a Ku Klux Klan effigy that sat for nearly four hours Friday on the University of Iowa Pentacrest, President Sally Mason has called the campus response “not adequate.”

“Nor did that response occur soon enough,” Mason said in a message sent Sunday to the university community. “For failing to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment, the university apologizes.”

Mason, who was out of town Friday, said in her message that she plans to meet with concerned students Wednesday to “prepare a detailed plan of action” that will include input from those affected by the incident. The plan will look at how the university can “better meet its responsibility to ensure that all students, faculty, staff, and visitors are respected and safe.”

Mason also shared plans to move quickly in forming a committee of students and community members to advise her on options for strengthening cultural competency training and reviewing implicit bias training.

And she urged university-provided counseling for anyone negatively affected by the incident, which left a 7-foot Ku Klux Klan effigy affixed with a hidden camera on the Pentacrest without permission from 7 a.m. to about 10:30 a.m. Friday.

The statue — emblazoned with tar screen prints of newspaper clippings depicting coverage of racial tensions, riots, and killings dating to the early 1900s — was erected in the place where 12 hours earlier community members held a solidarity protest in connection with recent high-profile killings of black individuals at the hands of white police officers.

Serhat Tanyolacar, 38, a UI faculty member and Grant Wood Art Colony Printmaking Fellow who made the sculpture, is not facing university consequences, officials said. But he issued an apology over the weekend after telling The Gazette on Friday that he hoped the robed statue would produce haunting reminders of American history that might lead to progress — “something positive.”

“I was not able to execute my intention,” Tanyolacar said in his apology, which he posted on social media.

“I sincerely apologize for the pain and suffering I caused to the African American community on Friday,” he said. “I am hoping that I will be able to be forgiven for the pain I have caused with my sculpture.”

Tanyolacar said in his note that the sculpture has some in the community perceiving him as racist but, in fact, he's the father of a mix-raced 8-year-old boy who has faced “racism and prejudice.” Before moving to Iowa City, Tanyolacar said he lived in Tennessee and Florida and — with racial tensions flaring nationally around the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York — he hoped to “facilitate a dialogue with a community on a college campus.”

Tanyolacar said he even recently participated in an exhibition project called, “Hands Up, Don't Shoot: Artists Respond” in St. Louis. In his apology, Tanyolacar said, he's “ready to heal the suffering which I caused due to the fact that I did not consider the impact of this sculpture piece over the entire community.”

Dozens, if not hundreds, of UI community members have expressed the pain the sculpture has caused by gathering in public, writing chalk messages on campus sidewalks, and posting on social media. Using the hashtag #BlackHawkeyes, community members representing a broad range of reactions have weighed in on the controversy on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other sites.

Kayla Wheeler, a third year doctoral student in the UI Department of Religious Studies, has expressed her outrage over the art, the artist's explanation, and the UI response on Twitter. Wheeler is among those who have made demands of the university, including that Mason and local law enforcement issue public apologies.

“Several school busses full of kids drove by the statue,” according to Wheeler, who said she and several other concerned students met with UI administrators Friday about the statue.

Wheeler also criticized the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for promoting the statue on social media as interesting “public art.”

“There needs to be social media oversight committee,” she wrote. “That tweet from CLAS should have never went out.”

Nic Arp, director of strategic communications for the college, removed those initial social media posts and issued an apology for promoting the art, which he told The Gazette he happened by on his way to work Friday morning.

“I very sincerely apologize for my insensitivity and for contributing to people's very real and understandable pain,” Arp wrote on Twitter. “I have learned a lot about how my own privilege and culture bias informed my own initial reaction to it.”

Arp told The Gazette he initially viewed the sculpture through a “public art” lens and realized later how “incredibly offensive” it was to those with a more personal connection. He said the incident caused him to become introspective about the “white privilege” he experiences.

“I'm a white person and responded to it first and foremost as a piece of art and not in the way an African American might — as a very real and scary symbol,” he said. “I wanted to take personal responsibility and say, hey, I've learned a lot and I'm embarrassed by my own insensitivity about it.”

Other demands listed on social media include mandatory implicit bias training for faculty, staff, and students, and consequences for the artist.

“If he is not fired immediately and returns to campus next semester, he should not be allowed to teach any students,” Wheeler wrote. Other people posting under the #BlackHawkeyes hashtag continued to weigh in on the issue Monday. One person criticized Tanyolacar's apology.

“Twitter is not an acceptable place for a formal apology,” she wrote.

“Many black students from the University of Iowa have summed up their reaction to the 7ft KKK statue in one word: Traumatic,” another person wrote.

Joseph Brennan, UI Vice President for strategic communication, said Mason's meeting Wednesday will not be open to the public but instead create a space to hear directly from those who are concerned. Mason isn't able to meet with the students sooner because she's still out of town, Brennan said.

It's unclear what specific steps might come from the meeting, but Brennan said he expects the conversation to be ongoing in the spring semester.

Brennan said Tanyolacar is not facing any consequences from the university, but he understands the artist is working on a longer apology he intends to make public.

The UI School of Art and Art History hosted a public forum Monday night on the topic of “how controversial art is discussed and displayed in public.” And the UI NAACP is hosting a town-hall meeting Wednesday evening at the Iowa City Public Library titled, “Black Lives Matter.”

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