Artwork sparks censorship accusations

This pencil and felt marker depiction of a panther was at the centre of a controversy between an AMS Deputy Human Rights Commissioner and the “Art in Colour” event organizer.
This pencil and felt marker depiction of a panther was at the centre of a controversy between an AMS Deputy Human Rights Commissioner and the “Art in Colour” event organizer.

A pencil and felt pen drawing of a black panther that was on display in the Common Ground set off a firestorm of e-mails earlier this week. Following apologies, one student says she still feels slighted.

The untitled, anonymous piece of art, which featured the panther on a background of math equations, was part of the Committee Against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination’s (CARED) “Art in Colour” event, which brought together works produced by several student artists who self-identify as visible minorities. The event was part of the Eracism week hosted by CARED, which ran from Mar. 13 to 15.

On Sunday evening, the artwork display was in the process of being erected when AMS Deputy Human Rights Commissioner Bavidra Mohan raised concerns because he felt the drawings could be seen as offensive. He told the display organizer that he wanted it to be cleared by his supervisor, AMS Social Issues Commissioner Jennifer Holub.

Amita Bhatia, ArtSci ’04, and the “Art in Colour” organizer, disagreed. After further discussion with Mohan, she did not put up the piece of artwork pending a meeting with Holub. Later that evening, she e-mailed several other students, relating her feelings on the situation and asking for advice and support.

On Monday morning around 9 a.m., Mohan met with Holub, at which time the piece was immediately approved and mounted, prior to the opening of the show. Mohan said he raised his concerns about the artwork because he believed it closely resembled the logo of the Black Panther Party, a political association involved with the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s.

He said it was his misunderstanding of the actions of the Black Panther Party that made him want to verify the artwork’s appropriateness with Holub.

“As far as I know—which I confess is not a great deal—the Black Panthers were a militant group that fought for the same goals as Martin Luther King Jr., only they did so through more violent means, albeit in self-defence,” he wrote in an official apology, which was attached to an e-mail from Shiva Mayer, AMS VP (University Affairs), on Monday evening. “It is precisely because of my lack of knowledge that I wanted to check with the commissioner to see if it was OK.”

Mohan said he regrets the statements, that he made during his discussion with Bhatia on Sunday evening about the Black Panthers, which included a comparison to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). However, he added he feels that his statements were taken out of context. He has since learned more about the history of the Black Panthers, he said.

“I regret to admit that I did say that … I do regret saying that,” he told the Journal. “What I was trying to say is that they are similar to the KKK in that they represent one racialized group.”

Bhatia said she was surprised by Mohan’s concern about the piece.

“I personally didn’t see it as a problem—it never even crossed my mind,” she said. “There’s no way we should be singling out this piece of artwork, what it represents, the artist—there is no justification.”

Mohan said he has since done research about both the Black Panthers and the KKK, and has a greater understanding of the work done by the Black Panthers.

“I was happy to dispel my misconceptions [of the Black Panthers],” he said.

Bhatia said she wants an apology for the entire AMS constituency for what she said amounts to censorship.

“The students who pay the AMS deserve an apology, as this was done in their own name,” she said.

Alexandra Saginur, ArtSci ’06 and CARED co-chair, said she and co-chair Saher Bhaloo, ArtSci ’06, also had concerns about the artwork. They said they weren’t aware that their decision to await Holub’s approval on the art would cause controversy.

“We didn’t realize so many people were upset,” Saginur said, adding she thought the issue had been resolved when the artwork was put on display Monday morning.

Mayer said the AMS had neither the intention nor the legal right to censor student artwork.

“[Censorship is] not something we do, or have the desire to do,” he said. “We don’t have the right to censor … we don’t have a policy on censorship, as censorship is illegal.”

Mayer said in response to the situation, he has had meetings with all students involved.

“For all intents and purposes, the issue has been resolved,” he said.

Bhatia said she feels the issue has not been resolved, as she has not received a sufficient explanation of the incident. She said she feels Mohan’s apology does not address the issue, which she sees as racism.

“Obviously this thing, ‘sorry I made a mistake,’ isn’t good enough,” she said. “You need to explore where that bias came from. … Nobody is addressing that.”

Bhatia added she would like to see a further discussion about the biases she feels brought about this situation.

“[I would like] for them to look at why people might have those types of biases, to make sure that the AMS staff is educated on ethics and human rights and what that means,” she said.

Bhatia’s initial e-mail to friends was further circulated via e-mail to other students, staff and faculty. Mayer, Mohan, Bhatia and the CARED co-chairs said they have all received several e-mail responses to the situation.

The piece of artwork was also discussed at a panel on Wednesday—also part of Eracism Week—called “Unmasking the ‘Other’ at Queen’s.” The discussion centred on institutional racism at the University and was attended by approximately 60 people, including Principal Karen Hitchcock, Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane and AMS President Ethan Rabidoux.

When the issue was raised, Mohan apologized again to the collected group, saying that it was his lack of information that caused the problem, not censorship on the part of the AMS.

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