Segregation art project sparks uproar at SUNY Buffalo

James Mietus
Campus Reform Intern

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  • A fine arts grad student posted "White Only" and "Black Only" signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains in Clemens Hall, igniting controversy on campus.
  • The project was part of a project for an "Installation: Urban Spaces" art class.
  • One outraged student tweeted, “Not only is this a hate crime, but it is also an act of terrorism.”
  • Photo via @JVMES_BVTTLE

    A student at the University of Buffalo ignited controversy Wednesday for hanging “White Only” and “Black Only” signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains in Clemens Hall that houses offices and classrooms for the College of Arts and Sciences. The signs, which campus police removed after receiving complaints, were posted as an assignment for an art class.

    Campus officials initially treated the incident as an “insensitive prank.”

    “Not only is this a hate crime, but it is also an act of terrorism.”   

    Ashley Powell, a graduate student in fine arts, came forward as the individual behind the project at a meeting of the Black Student Union on September 16. Powell, who is black, hung the signs as a project for her “Installation: Urban Spaces” class, which requires the creation of an art installation in a public space.

    Powell explained that her purpose was to “get a reaction out of people.”

    UB students reacted immediately and took to social media to express confusion and outrage. One student tweeted, “Not only is this a hate crime, but it is also an act of terrorism.” The tweet received almost 500 favorites and more than 700 retweets.

    Over 100 students appeared at the Black Student Union's weekly meeting later in the day, where Powell admitted to posting the signs. The UB Spectrum reports that some of the participants left the meeting crying.

    Micah Oliver, president of the Black Student Union, said the signs evoked, “a past our generation has never seen which I think is why it was so shocking for us to see.” One student called the signs “sickening” and that the project “entices a fear no one should ever experience.”

    Powell apologized for hurting people but defended the project as a work of art.

    Powell did not clear the project with the university before posting the signs. Posting on campus is limited to designated bulletin boards, and university policy states that "exceptional situations and/or unique material" require special permission from the Office of Student Affairs.

    The university said in a press release that it is “continuing to review this matter through appropriate university policies and procedures."

    The Intercultural and Diversity Center will call a meeting Sept. 17 to “allow students to continue the discussion.”

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @JMietus



    James Mietus

    James Mietus

    Campus Reform Intern

    James Mietus is Campus Reform's fall 2015 intern. He worked in consulting and policy research before joining the internship program at the Leadership Institute.

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