The Fine Arts Center (FAC) of Kershaw County is responding to claims of censorship after the owner of a Columbia art gallery issued a press release following the opening of an exhibit in Camden.
“Under pressure from at least one board member and supporters, the leadership of the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County … insisted (Oct. 22) that two paintings in its current exhibition be removed from the show,” Wim Roefs, owner of Columbia’s if Art Gallery, claimed in a press release issued Friday afternoon.
The paintings are by Columbia artists Michaela Pilar Brown and Tonya Gregg as part of the Body & Soul: Michaela Pilar Brown, Tonya Gregg & Leo Twiggs” exhibition.
Roefs said he removed the paintings on the afternoon of Oct. 23 after consulting with the artists, prior to the exhibit’s opening reception. In their place, he said, he hung a sign informing viewers that the previously installed paintings were removed at the FAC’s insistence. He also placed a pedestal for each painting with an envelope containing an image of what he called the “censored” works of art. He said the envelope warned visitors they can view the image “at your own risk.”
Roefs said there were no problems with the opening Oct. 23 reception, which he characterized as “delightful.” He said people “loved” the exhibition, but claimed many patrons were disappointed, “even outraged” they couldn’t see the removed artwork.
“People looked at the images in the envelopes and seemed genuinely puzzled as to why the paintings were removed,” Roefs said in the press release, claiming some asked FAC leadership for an explanation.”
FAC Executive Director Kristin Cobb said the center is pleased to present the exhibition.
“The gallery opening was a lovely evening,” Cobb said. “I had a very nice discussion with both artists about how art should create a public conversation. I suggested that during the exhibition … we could plan for a special gallery talk to explore the subject matter and have an open dialogue.”
Roefs said one of the paintings, Brown’s “Cocking Crow” -- depicting a nude black woman, who resembles the artist, on chicken feet and with a hat -- is a take-off of a famous image of Bert Williams performing a Jim Crow parody. He claimed FAC leadership told him at least one of the center’s board members considered the painting “offensive.”
“It’s not entirely clear what folks are offended by,” Roefs said, “but apparently it is the nudity. This would be odd. Nudes have been standard fare in paintings throughout art history, and people look at them without being offended all the time in museums all over the world. I’ve witnessed that myself. Does all this mean that the Fine Arts Center would refuse an exhibition of, say, paintings by 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, which often contain nude women? One has to wonder whether there would be such consternation if Brown’s painting had been created in 1614 rather than 2014.”
Roefs said another painting, Gregg’s “Shook,” depicts a woman in the background and, in the foreground, a little girl sitting on the ground. In front of the little girl are three hand grenades, he said.
“I am not sure what is offensive about this painting. I was told by the Fine Arts Center leadership that someone had complained about ‘the grenades between the child’s legs.’ I would not have characterized the scene as having ‘grenades between the child’s legs.’ That sounds a lot more violent than ‘in front of the child,’ and perhaps describing it that way says more about the person making the complaint than about the painting.
“I also was told that the person complaining was offended because to that person the scene ‘clearly related the explosiveness of the relationship between the mother and child.’ First, I am not sure that the older figure is the child’s mother. Second, I am not sure that suggesting an explosive relationship specifically between this older person and this child is what the artist was getting at. But, third, even if that was what the artist tried to communicate, so what? Explosive relationships between older and younger people, including parents and their children, take place all the time, everywhere. I have witnessed that myself, too. It would seem to me a perfectly fine subject matter for art -- if, indeed, that is what the painting were to be about.”
Roefs said “Shook” was shown earlier this year at Mars Hill (N.C.) University, a private Christian liberal arts school, “without incident” as part of another <italic> Body & Soul </italic> exhibition, which he also curated. He said that exhibition featured works from the same artists in the current Camden exhibition.
“Rather than take down the whole exhibition or even just all the works by the two artists in question, we decided to remove the paintings and replace them with a sign explaining the art installed there was removed at the insistence of the Fine Arts Center,” Roefs said. “I don’t know, of course, whether the center will leave the signs up and leave the envelopes with the images of the two paintings. They did during the reception last night.”
Cobb said FAC leadership “certainly understood” the show’s content “explored more complex subject matter.” She said after the full exhibit was installed, concerns were raised about a piece prominently hung on the back gallery hall, in addition to another piece.
“At that time, I contacted the curator, and explained the concerns and that I did not want to infringe on the artist’s creative license, but I asked if he would talk to the artists about removing those pieces and perhaps even replacing,” Cobb said. “I expressed my hesitation and respect for them, but also the balance I felt I needed to maintain with our patrons. I was told that if the artists felt strongly that this was not acceptable, they could choose to remove the show. I said I would be disappointed, but would respect their decision. I was informed later that evening that they had agreed to removing the pieces.”
Cobb also said the FAC exhibit provides a “home and opportunity” for the artists to showcase their work for a month and even discuss their artwork more in depth with interested persons.
“Our gallery exhibitions are viewed by many in the community, including families, and this was a balance agreed upon to still feature the work and talented artists but show some sensitivity to the patrons,” Cobb said.
She said the FAC previously featured works by another artist in the exhibit, Leo Twiggs, on numerous occasions.
Body & Soul runs through Nov. 20 in the FAC’s Bassett Gallery.