Panoramic exhibition of a modern day KKK at UT Austin stirs debate on art and censorship

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The Blanton Museum of Art says that it has taken pains to prevent controversy.

On Tuesday, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin unveiled its latest acquisition: a thirty-foot panorama of an imagined, modern-day Ku Klux Klan meeting. Entitled The City I, the black-and-white image might appear as a relic of the past, but according to the museum’s website, “details such as an iPhone, a can of Budweiser beer, and a new Chevrolet truck situate the work firmly in the present day”.

Viewers can interpret the mixture of past and present as commentary on the continued existence of the domestic terrorist group and racialized violence. The artist himself, Vincent Valdez, wants to remind everyone of the “sinister yet very real existence of the Klan and white supremacy today, hiding in clear sight among us.”

Artist Vincent Valdez

Yet, not everyone agrees. Nelson Linder, the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter president, concedes to the New York Times, “I would have shown the victims…not just pictures of the Klan, but the end result of their behavior, the Black folks being lynched”.

Initially Valdez stated of the work, “There are people in the United States…who refuse to acknowledge that entities like the Klan exist…It’s a lot easier to confront subjects like white supremacy or the Klan as evil villains.”

As opposed to his 2014 work entitled, The Strangest Fruit, a play off the title of a popular song by African American blues singer, Billie Holiday. The somber record highlights the notorious lynching and dehumanization of Blacks historically in the US. However, racial killings still persists. In this piece, Valdez showcases modernized Mexican victims being lynched based off aggregated reports of white mob violence, including against Latinos in America.

This tense discussion has reinvigorated debates about censorship and appropriateness in the art world, especially in light of last year’s protests against a painting of Emmett Till’s mutilated body at the Whitney Museum in New York, and a white artist’s rendering of African-Americans covered in chocolate and toothpaste in St. Louis.

As a pre-emptive measure, the Blanton Museum has spent the last two years preparing Valdez’s work for today’s public debut to ensure thorough, proper context. One to the institutive actions taken was that they first previewed it to members of the university community, and consulted with dozens of experts including the mayor’s office, the Anti-Defamation League and the Austin Justice Coalition, and an advocacy organization for people of color”.

The Blanton waited to contact Linder, around the same time, just weeks before the showing; to which he thought it was “fairly ridiculous,” and “out of courtesy.

The Blanton’s director, Simone Wicha, has remained adamant that the museum’s acquisition of Valdez’s pieces should not be confused as a sign of protest against the current political climate.

“It would be as if we had acquired it for a political statement, or the artist had painted it for a political statement,” Wicha explains. “Would we have done this in a different political climate? I don’t know. But I can tell you that in this political climate it was the right thing to do.”

Moreover, museum officials developed a website with a range of resources, including a schedule of upcoming events for viewers to discuss the artwork. Edmund T. Gordon, chairman of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, supports the “robust contextualization” of Valdez’s work.

However, it remains to be seen if the museum’s extensive measures will assuage all the viewers.

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Dr. Donavan Ramon is a professor at Kentucky State University. A scholar of African American literature, he focuses on fatherhood.

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