UI asks artist to remove work on Pentacrest
University of Iowa faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar speaks to UI students after removing his art piece from the Pentacrest. The students were part of a larger group concerned with the statue who went to Tanyolacar for an explanation of the piece. David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen
When one of Anthony Johnson's friends sent him a picture message Friday morning showing "a statue of a KKK member" on the University of Iowa Pentacrest, the UI junior from Chicago decided to go see for himself.
When Johnson arrived on the scene, he saw a 7-foot-tall sculpture of a robed figure that did look like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but the robe displayed photos and texts from a century's worth of newspapers describing and critiquing some of the most horrific scenes of racial violence in U.S. history.
Johnson also saw a crowd of about two dozen people in heated discussion with the artist behind the provocative piece: Serhat Tanyolacar, a Turkish-born multimedia artist who is a Grant Wood fellow for the UI School of Art and Art History this year.
"My immediate response was that I was really upset," Johnson said. "That kind of art should not be displayed with all that is going on in the black community."
Johnson said after he and his friends were able to pull Tanyolacar aside to discuss the sculpture, he realized that the artist's intent was to "bring light to racism" and to "show people that this stuff is going on today."
Tanyolacar said that he originally displayed the piece in Washington, D.C., in 2010, and that he decided to set it on the Pentacrest as a symbol to raise awareness of racism throughout the country.
"The work is to protest racist ideology, it's not about racism at all," Tanyolacar told the Press-Citizen.
Knowing Tanyolacar's intent, however, didn't change Johnson's opinion that UI officials were right — after receiving multiple complaints about the sculpture — to ask Tanyolacar to remove the artwork, which the artist did voluntarily.
"To have it out there without any posters or information explaining the artist's intent just meant that people were looking at it in a vacuum, with no context at all," Johnson said.
Other students agreed that — regardless of the artist's goals — it was irresponsible, at best, for Tanyolacar to place such a sculpture where, just the night before, hundreds of people had stood to protest ongoing racial tension across the nation.
"Regardless of whatever good intentions he might have had, to put out this image that has been haunting us (for generations) was just … offensive," said Bryanna Shannon, a UI junior from Ferguson, Mo.
"We're all college students … capable of having an intelligent conversation about art," said Stephanie Hutchins, a UI junior from Brooklyn, N.Y. "But it was too soon. Maybe if he had waited, we'd still have been angry, but we would've been willing to listen more."
UI sophomore Anthonie Perla said the statue brought back memories of growing up in Houston when a neighbor, who belonged to the Klan, caused trouble with Perla and his father.
"I really did want to burn" the sculpture, Perla said. "But after talking to him, we see what he's trying to do."
After the sculpture was removed, UI officials issued the following statement:
"The University of Iowa is a diverse community with no tolerance for racism, and the artwork that was briefly displayed on the Pentacrest this morning was deeply offensive to members of our community. Because it was placed without permission, university officials directed the visiting artist who created it to remove it, which he did.
"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 display was not approved by nor sanctioned by the university. The UI respects freedom of speech, but the university is also responsible for ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive."
UI political science professor Tim Hagle, who is teaching a course on "American Constitutional Law and Politics" this semester, said he gets a little disconcerted whenever university administrators talk about ensuring that public discourse is "respectful and sensitive."
"The First Amendment protects offensive and insensitive speech," Hagle said. "It's not enough to say, 'We respect freedom of speech.' You had better adhere to the requirements of the First Amendment."
But Hagle said he also recognized the bind that administrators often find themselves trying the walk the line between granting freedom and ensuring civility.
"Even though I would generally lean on the (freedom) side, … even I can understand that the university can't just let everything go all the time," Hagle said. "They do have a duty to intervene at some level."
In this case, Hagle said, it's fairly common knowledge that students and staff need to get permission to put things on the Pentacrest. Because Tanyolacar did not seek that permission, the university was within its rights to request that the sculpture be removed.
"That's not to say that, if the artist had asked permission, he wouldn't have been allowed to (place the artwork on the Pentacrest)," Hagle said. "But then it probably would have been accompanied by" additional explanatory information.
The fact that an artwork created with such a strong anti-racist intention wound up offending so many people as being racist, Hagle said, probably "says more about the art than about what is going on."
Tanyolacar's website, www.serhattanyolacar.com, includes photos of his 2010 display of the artwork — titled "In Their Shoes" — outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. At that event, Tanyolacar wore the robe.
The artist statement on the site reads, "Although my goal with this work was to raise public awareness on the rise of organized racist groups in the United States, I also realized the impact of walking as a social intervention strategy. When I interacted with the audience during my performance, I intended to signify an anti-racist ideology that was articulated by an altered historical symbolic object."
At about 4 p.m. Friday, Tanyolacar posted the following on his Twitter account: "I apologize and am deeply sorry for anger and confusion I might havecaused today due to a public art work solely focusing raising awareness."
Photographer David Scrivner contributed to this report. Higher education reporter Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or jcharisc@press-citizen.
Twitter statement Serhat Tanyolacar
About 4 p.m. Friday, artist Serhat Tanylacar posted the following series of tweets to his Twitter account, @artserhat:
•As an artist and activist defending human rights for his entire life I am utterly saddened today.
•I have fought against racism, prejudice, bigotry, injustice and inequality for my life
•I apologize and am deeply sorry for anger and confusion I might havecaused today due to a public art work solely focusing raising awareness
•My sole purpose again was and is raising awareness over racism, prejudice, racial supremacy and all violance embodied in these ideologies
•All I have right now sadness as my feelings as an activist, as an artist, as a human rights defender. I am very very sorry.
•Right now I apologize for the fear and pain I caused and there is no word to explain how I feel at this moment