The centerpiece of artist Paul Rucker’s powerful Rewind exhibition is a collection of Klu Klux Klan robes, some in traditional African fabrics, some in camouflage patterns, sewn by Rucker and members of his family. Also included in the exhibition are racist ephemera from the turn of the century: lynching postcards, Klan newspapers, and slave-branding artifacts.
Rucker, who recently received a prestigious 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship for his work, splits his time living in Seattle and Baltimore. He showed an early variation of Rewind, titled Birth of a Nation Project, at Seattle Art Fair satellite exhibit Out of Sight last year.
Now, a small college in Pennsylvania showing the exhibition has decided to close it to the public, saying that, especially in light of the events in Charlottesville, “the images, while powerful, are very provocative and potentially disturbing to some.”
Here’s York College’s Facebook post attempting to explain their reasoning:
According to Artnet news, “the show has been removed from the college website and there is an armed guard on duty in the galleries.” The article goes on to say that the exhibit has traveled to other cities, “including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland” without any controversy.
While trigger warnings exist for a reason, and Rucker’s work is certainly meant to be challenging and uncomfortable (at the very least), this short-sighted decision by York College comes off as censorship—and shuts down art as an avenue to engage in the vital dialogue on race that we need to be having right now.
Some students at York college agree: One Facebook commenter said the move is “a slap in the face to our art department and galleries—especially the caliber of the visiting artist and exhibition.” Another posted: “This feels like an insult to the York community: to imply non-students can't understand the context of the exhibit when it's already been successfully shown in other cities around the country.”
Rucker also expressed disappointment at the college’s decision. He told the Baltimore Sun that “it’s a missed opportunity to have a conversation about race relations in America.” He also noted: “If we start putting restrictions on our doors, it’s no different than segregation. It’s no different than saying that one group of people can understand these works better than another.”