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JOSEPH N. BELL

A Controversial Mural at UCI

March 11, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I stopped by UC Irvine the other day to have a look at the artwork that has been causing all the fuss: a mural conceived and executed by a campus art class on about 100 yards of the zillion miles of fence surrounding campus construction sites.

The mural has been causing some pain to several dozen citizens and students who have protested two of its segments in particular: a nude woman in chains reaching out to art to free her from the bondage of the conventional role of women in our society, and an imposing line of Ku Klux Klanners.

The day I visited, Judy Baca, the teacher of the class (Intermediate Painting) was presiding over a meeting in front of the mural to give those who found it offensive an opportunity to air their views. In the background, construction machinery was groaning and wheezing, and construction workers were going about their tasks only a few feet away but on a separate planet. (It reminded me instantly of the mid-1960s, when construction workers were topping off the library while hundreds of students were milling about making political statements in the plaza below them. I always wanted to talk with some of those workers to find out what they were feeling about the protests.)

That curiosity wasn't as strong in front of the mural. Fewer people involved. Less volatile situation. Different time. And yet the gap between these worlds was so clearly etched.

The mural is in a state of half-completion. Only the first section on death has been painted; the rest is only sketched in--clearly a work in progress. The complaints about the KKK figures began before the artist had a chance to letter in a label on the lead figure that says, "Hello, my name is ignorance."

The major members of the cast were all present: instructor Baca, UCI ombudsman Ron Wilson and the students who are painting the mural. Wilson is a tall, sartorial, articulate black man who has been fielding most of the complaints and is passionately committed to the concept of the mural.

"Censorship of the creative mind is not what education is about," he told me. "This isn't a matter of personal taste but of educational integrity. That's what this country is all about. Where do you stop when you start putting restrictions on creative work?"

He says the people who have called to complain--many of whom haven't even seen the mural--want it removed because they don't consider it appropriate to UCI. One woman caller offered what she said was the perfect solution: use chain link fence around the construction sites.

Baca--whose car broke down on the way to this event, forcing her to hitch a ride--called the mural "a technique employed in multicultural communities all over the U.S. to show the connection between all of us." Then she referred me to her students, who were there to discuss their work.

Rod Nichols, Jennifer Brennan and Paul Kang--three of the 12 student artists--told me that the mural grew out of index cards on which the students were asked to write down 10 events that were especially significant in their lives. The cards were then mounted on a wall and categorized by theme. Four themes emerged: death, art, relationships and social awareness. So the mural was divided into these four parts and artists assigned. The student artists seemed more bewildered than angry over the negative attention that their work was getting.

Brennan: "I guess it wouldn't be art if it weren't controversial. But we're trying to get across our ideas in a positive way, and so far the only comments we've heard have been negative. We had an idea there might be a reaction, but we hoped that people would at least wait until the work was finished and the theme had emerged."

The discussion in front of the mural turned out to be mostly a love feast. Only two people spoke against the mural, both women, both black students. Jocelyn Allen, president of the Black Students Union, said her concern was not so much with the intent of the artists as with the first impression that the mural makes on people who don't take the time or haven't the intellectual depth to perceive the meanings portrayed. "We talk to people around the campus and they see these huge Klan figures and all they see is racism. I think the message should be more clear."

Although the meeting had been well publicized, the other complainants apparently chose not to attend. As one speaker said passionately: "Where are they, all those people who complained?" Another said: "There is a lot of racism in Orange County, and a big part of that racism is denial. Those people don't want to have to look at a mural reminding them of it."

Except for Wilson, the UCI administration has been mute about the whole affair, but Wilson told me that Chancellor Jack Peltason assured him early this week of his support for Wilson's position. Wilson wouldn't speculate on why the chancellor has not made that feeling public.

This whole affair seems to me appalling. To some extent, it may be an overreaction to a relatively small number of complaints. But the fact is that the complaints did stop work on the mural while the students reassessed their work, which I think is unfortunate. If creative expression is to be inhibited on a college campus, of all places, then where can it possibly flourish?

Jennifer Brennan said firmly: "You may not like what I paint, but I have a right to paint it."

And as the meeting broke up, one young man shouted from the audience: "Stay with your vision. Don't change it."

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