Signs speak louder than words: Art project goes awry
By Daniel Pinzon
Student artist Ashley Powell hung several signs that read “White Only” and “Black Only” around the University of Buffalo campus in mid-September. This artist’s creation is real. It makes people talk, because it’s not something that has dissolved into the past. Real in the sense that it’s still present in society.
“Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people, and oppress another… Forty to fifty years ago, these structures were visibly apparent and physically graspable through the existence of signs that looked exactly like the signs I put up,” Powell, an African American student, said in a statement to The New York Times. “Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does.”
This is true. Although society has progressed in its desegregation, forms of segregation still exist. Powell is just exposing the reality of things, as people insist that we have fixed those circumstances, when we are merely recovering. She amplified this message in the simplest of methods, using signs to say that it’s easy to be unnecessarily racist. With just a sign, a race of people were restricted, and even though we have evolved from that era, there are things today that replace that sign.
Some of the areas in which the signs were placed include near restrooms or fountains, thus effectively portraying an image dated before the civil-rights movement. And of course this causes discomfort and controversy.
This is much needed controversy. People have claimed that the project is, in itself, an act of racism. Powell intentionally brought out the emotions of racism. Powell voiced what society tries to hide, exposing society’s skeleton in the closet.
I had a coworker who had a similar concept in her university, though it wasn’t an art project. Instead, the LGBT community decided to explicitly label areas that were free from judgment with a colored paper. Any place with colored paper reinforced the idea that one can be who they are, whether it be gay, lesbian, queer, gender fluid or so on.
A group on campus decided to actively protest this. They said every part of the campus should be a place in which people can be who they are with no fear. But the purpose of this project was to acknowledge that not every place is accepting of people.
These stories may pertain to different oppressed groups, but the point they are trying to stress is that even though we go on as if everything is fine, that doesn’t fix anything.
I applaud Ashley Powell for voicing her message. She is making people talk, she is making people feel uncomfortable, and she is encouraging people to embrace themselves and pursue a culture of inclusion. She brings up this inequality because, simply, it still exists. She acknowledged it and she wanted others to acknowledge it, too.