University of Iowa Students Wake Up to Threatening KKK Art Piece

On Friday morning, students at the University of Iowa woke up to a piece of artwork in the middle of campus that resembles a life-sized figure of a Ku Klux Klan member made out of newspaper reports of race riots and murders of black people. The statue stood in the middle of campus for four hours before Serhat Tanyolacar, a visiting assistant professor and creator of the statue, took it down and was escorted to his vehicle by university police. 


Since students had held protests in honor of Aiyana Jones and Eric Garner in the same spot the night before, African-American students who spoke with AlterNet feared the statue was a direct threat against their activism. They weren't aware of who created the piece until they arrived on the scene.

Kayla Wheeler, a third-year PhD student in religious studies and host of the Thursday night protest, told AlterNet she first saw the image after a friend tweeted her a photo of the statue. By the time she arrived at the Pentacrest, where the statue was displayed, it had been removed. Dozens of African-American students were on the scene, as were campus police. Wheeler and other students who spoke with AlterNet claim police were insensitive to students who felt traumatized by the statue. Wheeler also says Tanyolacar dismissed their fears and anger over his attempt at solidarity.

"He said, yeah I was actually at the protests," Wheeler told AlterNet. "I saw what you all wrote on Facebook and you all were being divisive, so I wanted to have a better dialogue with the statue." 

Antonio Rodriquez, a sophomore in biomedical engineering, said Tanyolacar seemed oblivious and dismissive when students confronted him over the insensitivity of his piece. "He was hurt that we didn't like his art," Rodriquez told AlterNet. "He was mad that we didn't get what the art itself was, and that we didn't read what was on it." 

The University of Iowa released a statement stating that the piece "was deeply offensive to members of our community," and because it was displayed without permission, directed the artist to remove it. According to ABC9 KCAU-TV, the statue was removed by campus police because the artist did not have a proper permit to display his work. Tanyolacar told the Iowa Press-Citizen that, "The work is to protest racist ideology, it's not about racism at all." Still, he has apologized on Twitter about the harm his work caused.

Tabitha Wiggins, a hall coordinator in the university residents' hall and the staff member behind the push to get the statue removed, said, "I think that his ability to be a professor at the University of Iowa needs to be reconsidered. He definitely needs to be reprimanded and censured potentially, because that is not how you teach." 

AlterNet reached out to Tanyolacar for comment and will update this story with his version of how he interacted with students as soon as he responds. 

Tanyolacar also posted this message in response to the reactions to his work: 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"594884","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"495","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"668"}}]]

The problem with Tanyolacar's note is that it was full of "I" and "my" and why he felt entitled to demand that students who were clearly hurt by his actions respect his self-serving explanations. What was missing from his message was the historical context of how racists respond to black people who inhabit spaces that are not traditionally designed for them. The KKK has a long history of burning crosses on the property of African Americans to evoke fear. Even ultra-conservative Justice Clarence Thomas admitted that much. If he were truly about solidarity, Tanyolacar would know that a KKK member was convicted in February of this year of a hate crime for his role in a cross-burning in 2009. The racist group isn't just some threat from the distant past.

It would be perfectly reasonable for an African-American student who participated in the protests the night before to see the statue as a threat:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"594887","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"693","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"489"}}]]

When Tanyolacar placed his artwork of a KKK statue, no matter his intent, in the same space where students mourned the death of black life at the hands of racism, he essentially desecrated the dignity of the same people he claimed to be supporting. The KKK statue, regardless of its intent, was a trigger, causing a violent reaction in black students who were already traumatized by a legal system that told them, yet again, black lives do not matter.  

As protests over the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown grow, it would be wise for non-black allies who want to help create constructive dialogue to understand the need to speak in a language that doesn't attack the same people they claim they want to help.

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