Imagine. You are a young artist in a high school. You have worked for three and half years building your technical skills and your conceptual understanding of what art is for. In your final year of highschool, as you are preparing your portfolio for post-secondary school, you are told that your work is inappropriate.
This is exactly what happened to one of my students. A grade 12 black student painted this image.
This artwork was created in order to shine a light on the systemic racism that takes place so often in our society. There have been many incidents of unnecessary police brutality and racial profiling against people of colour, which is how the well-known term “black lives matter” came about. Many people try to downplay these situations or make them seem like it’s the fault of the person being brutalized by the police. However, upon looking at cases like Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin, cases that ended fatally for the victims, it is clear that they were singled out solely because of their race. Because there have been so many cases like this, I decided to create an artwork that clearly indicates that some police officers are racist and that that can be their motive to attack certain people. This artwork, however, is not meant to show that I believe that all police officers are racists, because I’m aware that that is not true. It is simply meant to say that there are police officers out there who are racist, and people must be aware that police officers carry out anti-black crimes all the time, and these choices have led to distrust from people of many communities towards police officers and towards the justice system.
In the beginning stages of creating this artwork, I knew that I wanted to create something that would make people uncomfortable, but also make them think. I used my own experiences and experiences of other people of colour as inspiration for this piece. Due to my skin colour, I tend to get a bit anxious around police officers. I’m constantly wondering “what if this one’s racist?”, so I tried to depict this fear to the best of my ability.
I set up my grade 12 visual art course in an inquiry model, working explicitly to teach process. Students are responsible for content. They are required to choose a theme and develop a message that is of personal significance and interest to them as they create a body of work. She developed this piece out of her own anxiety and the fear that she and her peers feel around the local police enforcement, as there is a carding / profiling policy in place in our region.
After the work was complete, my colleague and I put this piece on display in the school. It was displayed for nearly two weeks, until the morning of Wednesday January 9, 2016 (notably the day after Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States) the painting was turned around in the display case by one of the custodial staff of my school. From this point forward, the wake of the next several weeks will never be forgotten.
The painting was removed because it was deemed too controversial. (Admittedly, the artist statement did not originally appear in the display case as my teaching partner and I got distracted from finishing the display – nonetheless, it was up for two weeks without incident). After a conversation with my principal, who was very support of the work, but required to follow direction on the matter, we started an ongoing conversation with Sabeehah. She demonstrated extreme poise and maturity as she defended her artwork. This experience also created an exceptional learning opportunity for the entire class, who came together and supported Sabeehah in a variety of different ways.
The discussion quickly escalated from the principal’s office, to the superintendent, all the way to the director of education office for the PDSB. Once it was finally “cleared” and allowed to be put back up, there were conditions. The stake holders (e.g. the community police officers for the school, as well as the custodial staff who first made the complaint) had to be okay with the decision to have it displayed. This is equivalent of asking the oppressed to seek permission from the oppressor, which creates an inequities power relationship for a modern and democratic society. We were also notified that the chief of police for our region was having discussions around this piece – and yet at the same time, never initiated a conversation with Sabeehah or myself as to the overall context and how to work on alleviating the broken community relationship that exists between the police and the black community in Brampton.
In the end, Sabeehah became even more persistent in her quest to voice her experience, and developed the courage to share her feelings and opinion about a very controversial issue that is experienced, but unfortunately is rarely talked about as much as it should.