KKK Sculpture Ignites Racial Tensions on University Campus

An artist's attempt to spark debate misfired—badly.

Serhat Tanyolacar's sculpture on the Pentacrest Photo via: The Gazette

University of Iowa (UI) President Sally Mason sent a message to students on Sunday in response to a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) effigy that had been displayed as public art on the campus last Friday. According to the Gazette, she wrote: “For failing to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment, the university apologizes.”

The sculpture is the work of UI faculty member and Grant Wood Art Colony Printmaking Fellow Serhat Tanyolacar. It features black and white prints that reproduce press articles from the last 100 years, reporting on the KKK and race riots in the US. The piece also includes a video camera in sculpture’s hat.

The artist told the press that he was hoping that his work would “trigger something positive” by confronting issues head-on, rather than “ignoring what is going on.”

Several sources reported that it was installed on the university’s Pentacrest, a plaza at the heart of the campus, on Friday morning. The site had recently hosted protests against two grand juries’ failure to indict the police officers responsible for the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, both of whom were unarmed at the time of their respective deaths.

“It almost seemed like getting spit in the face,” student Tayo Ajose told the Gazette.

The Sculpture’s Removal

Police had the sculpture removed at 10:30am Friday morning for the official reason that it lacked authorization to be displayed on the campus. Tanyolacar said he felt “extremely hurt” by their decision to do so. He had installed the piece at approximately 7:00am.

But the artwork had already incensed many students who took to social media to express their anger using the hashtag #BlackHawkeyes.

Blogger SubtlerRhythm, who describes herself as a “Black female student activist at the University of Iowa,” writes that “police had to be SHAMED by a black female into removing the extremely offensive piece of ‘art’ from the Pentacrest.”

She also wrote that students spoke with Tanyolacar for almost two hours and then marched peacefully to President Mason’s office “to demand answers.” According to her report, administrators called the police, who physically stopped “several students” marching towards the office.

Since then, Tanyolocar posted on social media: “I sincerely apologize for the pain and suffering I caused to the African American community on Friday. I am hoping that I will be able to be forgiven for the pain I have caused with my sculpture.”

A Detailed Plan of Action

The university president, who is said to have been away when the incident occurred, condemned the campus’s response as slow and inadequate. She will be meeting students on Wednesday to “prepare a detailed plan of action,” according to the Gazette.

University representatives told the paper that the artist won’t face any consequences for the display of his sculpture. He is, however, expected to make another, longer apology.

The decision is likely to irk students, some of whom have described their experience of the sculpture as traumatic. UI junior Kayla Wheeler was quoted in the Gazette saying: “If he is not fired immediately and returns to campus next semester, he should not be allowed to teach any students.”

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