IOWA CITY — His Ku Klux Klan-likened sculpture was vandalized, cursed, censored, and dismantled before he was publicly vilified and humiliated, University of Iowa assistant professor Serhat Tanyolacar told a crowd of more than 100 on Tuesday.
Speaking for the “last” time about the artwork that prompted outcry around diversity and free speech issues, Tanyolacar said during a “teach-in” at Kirkwood Community College that the UI administration effectively said his sculpture “is not protected by the First Amendment due to the discomfort it caused.”
“The UI has moral and legal responsibilities to respect the First Amendment rights of students and faculty,” Tanyolacar said, adding that he believes the institution failed.
“That was deeply troubling and profoundly chilling,” he told a large crowd gathered for the “Fear of Art” forum on the Kirkwood campus in Iowa City.
During the two-hour discussion, Tanyolacar chronicled his experience Dec. 5 of installing on the UI Pentacrest a 7-foot-tall statue, which was created in the likeness of a Ku Klux Klansmen and robed in print screenings of newspaper articles depicting racist incidents in U.S. history.
As passers-by observed the artwork, which was up for about four hours before authorities took it down, Tanyolacar said he documented the reaction. Some stopped to talk about the piece, including those it angered. One UI staff member kicked the sculpture, Tanyolacar said.
“Then people started cheering and clapping,” he said.
Tanyolacar said the university responded to a group of about a dozen students concerned with the artwork by issuing a public statement calling the statue “deeply offensive” and saying it has “no tolerance for racism.” UI President Sally Mason offered a subsequent apology for the display, saying it caused black students and community members to “feel terrorized and fear for their safety.”
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Emails obtained by The Gazette revealed administrators allowed the group of upset students to review and suggest changes to Mason’s apology before it went out. Tanyolacar referenced that revelation Tuesday and said those students were allowed to manipulate the UI system, making him feel unsafe.
“The UI administration’s treatment to me and to the work is just chilling,” he said. “It’s difficult to get over — to understand.”
University officials said they took down the statue because Tanyolacar didn’t get the required permissions to display artwork on campus. Joseph Brennan, vice president of UI strategic communication, has told The Gazette the university would have granted permission if he asked for it. But, he said, it would have minimized the hostility students experienced “by placing it in context.”
Tanyolacar on Tuesday said that would have defeated the statue’s purpose as public art.
“Permission would have come with mandatory contextualization of my work, and once artwork is contextualized, it loses its meaning as a piece of public art,” he said.
Tanyolacar took questions and comments Tuesday about the university’s response to his artwork and about the piece itself. Jensina Endresen, 30, of Iowa City, said she found it ironic the university stressed the value of making everyone feel “welcome, respected, and protected on our campus.”
“(Mason) said it’s important to put forth a feeling of safety for everyone, and you were not included in that,” Endersen said. “Has anyone made a move and come forth to say this is wrong?”
Tanyolacar said, “No,” clarifying that only a few people supported him. Emails obtained by The Gazette, however, show the artist did receive support, including from the UI Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
“I would like you to know that the local AAUP chapter, which exists to protect academic freedom, completely supports your right to show the sculpture,” AAUP president and UI history professor Katherine Tachau wrote in an email Dec. 5. “I admire your courage and your powerful work. Thank you for trying to make a difference.”
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UI Professor Emeritus Bruce Fehn attended Tuesday’s discussion and told the crowd he was “stunned” by the UI response to the sculpture.
“They expressed a terrible level of ignorance,” he said.
But Elyse Mele, a 23-year-old graduate student in the UI Writers’ Workshop, asked Tanyolacar what type of response he wanted.
“It seems like you were capitalizing on an argument that was already ongoing, rather than starting another dialogue,” she said, asking what he expected, other than people “responding angrily to a piece of racist iconography in a public space without context.”
“I’m curious why that was dissatisfying?” she asked.
Tanyolacar said the response wasn’t dissatisfying, and he simply wanted to weigh in on the national dialogue erupting around the issue of race.
He has said, however, that he believes the university owes him an apology for the way it treated him. Kirkwood history professor David McMahon said he’s in no position to provide that apology but, in a lighthearted end to a serious discussion Tuesday, McMahon handed Tanyolacar a sympathy card.