Students at the University at Buffalo were outraged about the sudden appearance of "White Only" and "Black Only" signs above certain bathroom doors in the College of Arts and Sciences building. But outrage was largely the point, since the signs were part of a black student's visual arts project.
Many did not appreciate the signs, even with the knowledge that they had been deployed as deliberate social commentary. One student tweeted, "Not only is this a hate crime, but it is also an act of terrorism." Others called the police.
Ashley Powell, a graduate student in fine arts, came forward as the individual behind the project at a meeting of the Black Student Union on September 16. Powell, who is black, hung the signs as a project for her "Installation: Urban Spaces" class, which requires the creation of an art installation in a public space.
Over 100 students appeared at the Black Student Union's weekly meeting later in the day, where Powell admitted to posting the signs. The UB Spectrum reports that some of the participants left the meeting crying.
Micah Oliver, president of the Black Student Union, said the signs evoked, "a past our generation has never seen which I think is why it was so shocking for us to see." One student called the signs "sickening" and that the project "entices a fear no one should ever experience."
Powell apologized for hurting people but defended the project as a work of art.
Powell did not clear the project with the university before posting the signs. Posting on campus is limited to designated bulletin boards, and university policy states that "exceptional situations and/or unique material" require special permission from the Office of Student Affairs.
The university said in a press release that it is "continuing to review this matter through appropriate university policies and procedures."
It may have been wiser for Powell to clear her project with the administration first, although I suppose she would have been shut down. Still, the university has the general right to place reasonable, content-neutral restrictions on public displays, and Powell violated those rules.
I don't blame the students for being disturbed by the signs; they would have disturbed me as well. There's a strong argument to be made for revisiting America's legacy of slavery, of course), and art is an appropriate vehicle to do so, but a classroom, or a clearly marked public space, would have been better places to host such a discussion.
Still, I don't think the university, or other students, should come down too hard on Powell. An art project is not an act of terrorism.