Univ of Buffalo Public Art Project Causes Tension, Opens Eyes


Students at the University of Buffalo recently awoke to find signs reading “White Only” and “Black Only” hanging near campus bathrooms.  They were hung there by a university art student who said she had done so as part of a project in an effort to spark a conversation on the topic.

Graduate student Ashley Powell, who enrolled in the university’s Art Department, hung 17 signs next to elevators, water fountains, benches and bathrooms.  University police began receiving phone calls regarding the signs within an hour, as students reported that the signs made them feel unsafe and traumatized, writes Elizabeth Harris for The New York Times, saying they thought it was an act of terrorism.

The signs were a topic of discussion at a meeting of the Black Student Union that night.  Powell, who is black, was in attendance and admitted responsibility for making the signs, calling her project an effort “to expose white privilege.”

“Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people, and oppress another,” Ms. Powell said in a statement. “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. Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does.”

Her statement continued: “I apologize for the extreme trauma, fear and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about. I apologize if you were hurt, but I do not apologize for what I did.”

The project was for a class called “Installation: Urban Space.”  Participating students were asked to post art in a public space on campus pertaining to time.

When students at the assembly found out the reasons behind the signs, many stormed out of the meeting, some of them crying, writes Priscilla Frank for The Huffington Post.  “It brought up feelings of a past that our generation has never seen, which I think is why it was so shocking for us to see,” Micah Oliver, president of the BSU, told ABC.

In response to the recent events, university spokesman John DellaContrada released this statement:

“On a daily basis our faculty and students explore sensitive and difficult topics in an environment that values freedom of expression, and this week’s student art project is generating considerable dialogue,” Mr. DellaContrada said. “The university is encouraging our community to discuss how we negotiate the boundaries of academic freedom in a safe and inclusive environment.”