Art censorship debacle rocks College Avenue

The+portion+of+Anastasiia+Shakhurinas+22+mural+depicting+a+Tesla+car+in+space+was+put+up+the+Friday+before+Family+Weekend%2C+but+the+uncensored+version+of+the+right+side+was+put+up+Tuesday.+%28Photo+courtesy+of+Anastasia+Shakhurina+22%29

The portion of Anastasiia Shakhurina’s ’22 mural depicting a Tesla car in space was put up the Friday before Family Weekend, but the uncensored version of the right side was put up Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Anastasia Shakhurina ’22)

Nathan Kornfeind

Anastasiia Shakhurina ’22 was one of five art students asked to paint a mural for the side of College Avenue. Initially, however, only half of this mural was actually displayed.

Shakhurina’s work was for one of five billboards that the college asked capstone art students to create to celebrate Family Weekend and the inauguration of President Hurd. According to Kymble Clark ‘22, one of the students in the capstone, the assignment was advertised to their class as an opportunity to show artistic capabilities and to support and promote the college. At first, most of their fellow students were not enthusiastic about interrupting their own capstone work to create these murals. However, after discussions with their professor, they decided it would afford an opportunity to express their feelings—including critiques of the school. 

Shakhurina got the inspiration for her work after seeing Elon Musk launch a Tesla car into outer space. The image stuck with her. For three weeks she worked to create a pulp-style piece depicting a nude girl running away from the symbol of capitalism, wealth and power that she thought the Tesla car represented. Shakhurina applied the theme to Lafayette. 

“It kind of represents how it is important to value students’ lives and our community more than the college values money and business and profit. And I didn’t even think about the nudity part, I just never thought that this would be a problem that would come up,” Shakhurina said.

Shakhurina stayed up all night working on her piece before it was to be installed on Friday. A few hours after Facility Operations picked up her artwork for the installation, however, a staff member called her and noted that they did not hang up half of her billboard because it depicted a naked woman.

Shakhurina immediately contacted her capstone professor and the facilities office, but could not get a clear answer as to why the half of the billboard depicting the naked woman had not been put up. 

It remains unclear who was behind the decision to not put up that part of the billboard. While Shakhurina noted that it was Facility Operations that she was in contact with, she does not know whether someone in the administration ordered it. 

“I don’t want to put blame on people who don’t deserve blame,” she said. 

Director of Facilities Scott Kennedy declined to comment and directed questions to Vice President for Communications and Marketing Mark Eyerly. Eyerly noted in an email that the painting was not put up to avoid offending people who were in town for College Hill’s porch fest and for Lafayette family weekend. 

“The concern centered on the possibility that some passersby might be offended by the depiction of exposed breasts in one of the paintings,” he explained. 

Although she was upset with the lack of communication about the decision, on Friday afternoon, Shakhurina decided to cover the exposed breast on her original work by painting them over, creating a sash that said “censorship.” Not entirely sure if that was the direction she wanted to take with her art piece, she put a note on it that said “not ready for installation.” Nevertheless, on Tuesday morning someone from facilities took the piece and put up the censored version of her work.  

“I was very upset about this situation because first of all, they took it down without my permission without communicating with me in any way, shape, or form. And then facilities just came in, put it up again, which I was really upset about,” Shakhurina said. 

Supported by her fellow capstone students and professors in the art department amid the decision, Shakhurina decided to fix the piece herself. On Tuesday evening, flashlight and acrylic paint in hand, Shakhurina approached her billboard and “painted the breasts backs on.”

“It was the right thing to do. This shouldn’t happen. We shouldn’t still be on that stage where we’re, as Mark Thomas Gibson said, ‘afraid of women,’ because that’s ridiculous,” she said. 

Gibson is an artist who visited Shakhurina’s class Tuesday morning.

Professors in the art department expressed their disappointment with the decision to not initially put up the original, uncensored piece.  

“The larger issue is how unacceptable this result is at a college that has the stated aspirations of intellectual inclusion, respect for diverse opinions and yearns to forge an identity of mutual acceptance and respect believing our differences make us stronger,” Art Professor Edward Kerns wrote. 

“Artists, musicians, poets, dancers, actors, performers of all types as well as film and media creators are on our campus and should be accorded respect and acceptance even if their work calls into question the status quo or makes us uncomfortable,” he continued. 

Art Professor Karina Aguilera Skvirsky noted that she was surprised with the decision and vowed to support her students. 

“We really do want to support our students, not just [Shakhurina], but the whole group because they worked so hard on that project. I really want them to be applauded for their efforts and acknowledged for their talent and their hard work. What they want is to poke at the institution. And Lafayette is an amazing place, but we have blind spots, and for [students] to bring that up through art, what a great place—that’s what art is supposed to do.”

Conceding that issues of public art are tricky, Skvirsky was disappointed in the lack of communication about the decision, especially since the piece in question was not salacious.

“Let’s have that conversation. But let’s not do this quietly without the conversation, without the dialogue, because this is a learning moment for everyone,” Skvirsky said. 

As of Wednesday, the artwork remains on display. According to Eyerly, it will stay there “throughout this weekend’s inauguration events.”