Saturday, December 20, 2008

Gallery 37 and Censorship of Student Art

Tomi Mick, a home-schooled high school-age student was taking AP photo classes at Gallery 37, called a protest for Dec. 19, when her photos, a series exploring female bodies at different ages, was censored from the final exhibition. The protest was organized by Females United for Action (FUFA), a Chicago-wide social change organization for people who identify as young women and gender-queer/ gender-neutral youth, with the leadership of youth of color at the center of their organizing. FUFA is a sister group of Women and Girls Collective Action Network. Here, Tomi shows her censored art in front of Gallery 37. Students going and going from classes in the building were overwhelmingly supportive of Tomi and FUFA’s requests that Gallery 37:
  • Educate students and parents about the need for freedom of artistic expression;
  • Clearly outline its art-making boundaries;
  • Meet with youth from FUFA to discuss setting a policy welcoming thought-provoking art and young feminist visibility.
These seem like reasonable, even fairly mild, requests.

Here is Tomi’s statement about what happened to her:

Gallery 37 in downtown Chicago, Illinois has a very prestigious AP art program for high school juniors and seniors looking to advance in their art career and prepare AP portfolios. They advertise their students as "the best of the best," and once inside, they force us through tons of college prep workshops and encourage us to apply to at least 10 art schools each.

I auditioned for and was admitted to the AP Photographic Explorations program. As a photography student of two years (this being my third), I was ready to explore my ideas and find my artistic concentration. Recently I've been working on images that portray women in un-conventional ways in order to challenge common ideas about the female body. I created an unfinished piece of my little sister, me, and my mother, neck to belly-button, nude. The photos are created to sit next to each other in chronological order. They are supposed to demonstrate the differences in our bodies due to age, development, shape, body-type, etc. I was hoping to post the series in this Friday's end of the semester's art show. My teacher, Mr. Cinoman, was with me all the way. He supported me when my idea was just an idea, and he supported me once it was executed. Monday, 4 days before the show, Mr. Cinoman tells me that he decided that my piece was too controversial to display, and that I would not be able to put them in the show. He also refused to give me my prints until the end of the two-hour period, after I said that I was leaving and not coming back.

There were never any written or verbal rules explaining what the boundaries were at Gallery 37, and as I said before, my teacher supported me until he had time to think about "the conservative Hispanic parents" that would be attending the show (Yes, he really said that).

Art is supposed to be controversial. We can't stand for this type of censorship of arts, especially the body-positive feminist kind. :) Who knows how many young artists have lost the desire to make art after encountering programs like this?

There’s a lot packed into Tomi’s analysis, but the bottom line is that a young woman lost a chance to show her art and get real feedback from an audience. But Tomi and FUFA turned this into a “teachable moment” anyway. Good for them. But too bad for all the rest of Gallery 37’s students that the organization, or perhaps just one teacher, couldn’t figure out how to educate by showing this work.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Making Chicago’s Schools Safer for All: Gardens, Solidarity and Social Justice

Before it went belly-up, Chicago’s nascent gay-and-allies high school was known as Social Justice Pride Campus, then, in an apparent attempt to gain broader support, it took on the name Social Justice Solidarity Campus. The former name—Pride—was the inaugural version; the planners switched to the latter—Solidarity—after encountering opposition, notably by evangelical ministers. The shift in nomenclature is telling; the school’s planners always seemed stuck somewhere between missions—were they about fostering gay pride or developing between-group solidarity? And, as seems likely, were they trying to mollify the wrong folks? After all, these ministers think queers are doing “the work of the devil.” Why try to reason with that?

Queer youth suffer in many schools, that’s for sure. But I still have questions: Will the goal of safety for gender and sexual minority youth be best achieved through the establishment of one school or the enforcement of the city’s already strong anti-discrimination policies? What about providing education toward justice for queer youth across city schools? Remember when Billie Jean King donated $10,000 to provide copies of the film It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School to every school in Chicago? What would happen if Duncan and Daley required these schools to show the film and discuss the “issues”? Can schools be made safer across the board, say, by repairing every broken window, boiler, and plaster wall, filling classrooms with art, plants, books, and computers, inviting neighbors to visit classes and plant school gardens, and strongly representing love and respect for every person in the building and community, so that all kids flourish? Bigger vision, bigger results.

Let’s refuse to let Daley spend a penny on the Olympics before every child is safe in every Chicago school.

And every school has a garden.