Shortly after returning to campus from the Eid Adha holiday many of our VCU-Q students were shocked to find that a small unused corner of the first floor was being used by one of our visiting artists as a mural sized canvas. On part of her canvas, artist Vreni Michelini decided to paint a pair of rather large milk squirting breasts. This apparently struck a very sensitive nerve in our small community. At first there were only quiet whispers and muffled giggles in reaction to the piece.. but it wasn’t long before someone was stomping their feet, waving their finger, and quoting Qatari law in protest of the work. As a result of the uproar the artist felt that the piece was complete and decided to return the wall back to its rather boring previous state of existence.
Though many people rejoiced to see that they had made strong enough waves to silence Ms. Michelni, many others were quite upset to see the work disappear. In the Deans note to everyone at VCU she explained that Ms. Michelini’s work “centers on issues of cultural transition and women’s empowerment” which makes me assume this piece specifically addresses those topics. If so, I have to wonder, wouldn’t it have been wise of Ms. Michelini to have talked to local woman regarding their ideas on empowerment? Quite a few female students made the comment that they couldnt understand how being immodest equates to women’s empowerment at all, if anything they saw it as a degradation to their status. Had she known this, I wonder if Ms. Michelini would have chosen to purposefully alienate the group she was trying to empower.
Personally, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the piece. You see I come from a very conservative background (emphasis on very). But I also went to art school in the states, and by the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in photography I had seen almost all my classmates naked (in photos). So, I guess I had mixed feeling about the work. On one hand, I found it pretty shocking to see enormous breasts painted on the wall of a school based in Qatar, because it was based in Qatar, but on the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few breasts in my art career and these were not the most vulgar that I had seen. Because I wasn’t sure where I stood on the topic I chose to keep quiet and just listen. But as I was listening it dawned on me.. if we are going to get out our thick black markers and start censoring our campus, where should we draw the line? And who gets to do the drawing? At first it seems pretty simple, right? No nudity, problem solved. Well, not really. VCU-Q is an arts program. By definition these programs tend to be liberal, the idea being that no restrictions would allow students to be as creative as possible. So in a program where by default people should be able to express themselves in any way they choose, the question again posses itself “who gets to decide what is expressed and what is not?”. Where do we draw the line? Should our students be segregated because the most conservative people in our society think that the mixing of genders is shameful? Should music no longer be played in drawing studios for the same reasons? What if someone decides to illustrate the story of “The Three Little Pigs”? What happens then?
I do not deny that the work of our artist in residence shows quite a bit of cultural insensitivity, but the fact that she felt she had to remove it makes me worry about giving the power to censor our freedom of expression to the most conservative part of our community.