An exhibition in an art space at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville briefly became the subject of controversy earlier this month when students at the school decried a work in the show, labeling it racist. After a protest was planned, the artist removed the work from the show, but at least one national nonprofit called the school’s response unsatisfactory.
The work in the exhibition, a 2023 piece called Klan Bride, featured an arcing figure wearing a Klan hood; the school’s African American Student Association (AASA) said the work “perpetuates racist narratives through harmful symbols.” The artist behind the work, Dominique Simmons, did not respond to a request for comment. Multiple publications have reported that Simmons is white, though that has not be confirmed.
The exhibition page for her show at Arkansas Tech has been removed, and there is no record of her show currently available on the website for Norman Hall Art Gallery, where the show was held. Attempts to reach the gallery were unsuccessful, and a school spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The AASA posted a statement from Simmons in which she said that, as a “child of the South,” she seeks to “abhor the evil and revel in the good found in our history. (Racism is bad, but southern music and literature are good.)”
Jace Bridges, president of the AASA, told ARTnews that the work had left him and others uneasy, especially because the work was exhibited close to the office of the only Black female professor in the school’s art department.
“It felt like a slap in the face, not one we were surprised by, but it was, like, you could’ve tried to do better,” he said in a phone conversation. “It conveyed how much they cared about students, in the sense that our feelings weren’t even part of the equation. There was no care for student mental health or for how they feel.”
As the outcry mounted, Robin E. Bowen, president of the university, defended Simmons’s art in a statement to students, saying, “Arkansas Tech University provides social mobility for its students and is a strong economic engine for the state. We also serve to develop an educated citizenry to support our nation’s democracy. As such, we are committed to protecting First Amendment rights. This includes protecting artistic expression as well as freedom of speech.”
The AASA had begun promoting an action to take place on January 16 to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, on January 14, the association posted that Simmons had made the decision to remove her work herself. According to Bridges, Simmons had planned to meet with the AASA, but then, once she removed her work, never ended up doing so.
Bridges regarded the decision as a victory, but also said, “The university still hasn’t acknowledged us as a student body and there hasn’t been an apology.”
Not everyone viewed the events at Arkansas Tech as inherently positive.
Shortly after the AASA’s announcement of Simmons’s decision, PEN America, a nonprofit that seeks to promote freedom of expression in the U.S., voiced concerns about how the situation unfolded.
“While we don’t know what caused the artist to retract her work, we are disappointed that the closure of the exhibit seems to have occurred so readily, with little chance for serious engagement with it,” said Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager in the Free Expression and Education program at PEN America, in a statement. “This deprives all students and campus stakeholders of the opportunity to view this art and grapple with it.
“We hope that the artist won’t be deterred in her work and that the university will take this opportunity to facilitate conversation about it and the response it elicited,” she continued. “How can we reckon with America’s history of racism and racial violence if our institutions shut down opportunities to use the arts for public engagement?”