Last week, I reviewed the opening and artist talk on the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) exhibit “One Foot Planted,” during which a problematic photo was displayed from an independent artist portfolio. On Tuesday, I sat down with the director, Lisa Joffe, and Amy Powell, assistant director for communications. Susan Metrican, director of the arts, called in to our meeting over the phone.
The issue in question was over Meirav Heiman’s photo of a “Black Dinner,” in which the guests were wearing afros and black face. It was displayed as part of a series of color-themed dinners. While discomfort in the room was felt, it wasn’t addressed in that moment. The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute staff simply didn’t deal with the photo while it was on display.
“We actually had a whole rehearsal the day before,” Powell said, though she clarified that the preliminary viewing of the PowerPoint in question was not for content but for concerns over language issues.
Both Amy Powell and Lisa Joffe confirmed that the picture in question wasn’t in the preliminary PowerPoint—which implies that the artist didn’t provide all of the content to be screened. This begs the question, did the artist know how the photo would be perceived?
I wanted to give Heiman the benefit of the doubt, however, the picture of the black dinner was of white people in black face and afro wigs. Yes, she was experimenting with color with the themed dinners, but why was the black dinner the only one with racial implications? The red dinner was not a depiction of Native Americans in racially insensitive garb. She could have found actual black people and put them in black clothing to convey a black dinner if she wanted to depict black people—which she did not do. I will say again that there is no veil of ignorance to hide behind. The United States has been dealing with black face recently, such as with the controversy over Virginia’s governor in February. When traveling to another country, understanding the current political climate of that country can save everyone some very unnecessary grief.
HBI staff spoke to Heiman after the event ended, and she expressed remorse and contrition. She didn’t intend to offend anyone, but she still did.
Susan Metrican said, “We have great responsibility in the kind of images and words that we represent, and so clearly something like this can come up and be felt by many different people whether it was understood by the creator or not, just to acknowledge that responsibility is there whether you understand or not.” And she is right. Both the artist and HBI should have done the bare minimum of screening. A run-through should have been on the table without the artist bringing it up themselves. Screening for images that could hurt or offend others should be a regular practice. Not thinking about that beforehand is insensitive and negligent on behalf of the artist and the HBI.
As to why she didn’t intervene about the photo during the event, Metrican said, “Clearly my first reaction was not to take that up with anyone there; it was only several hours later that I realized I could have done that… in this particular instance kind of hosting the artist and basically hosting the event, just that dynamic had me sort of frozen.”
She continued to say that in hindsight she could have addressed the picture during the Q&A portion of the talk and given the artist a chance to respond. She also said that the Q&A portion was an opportunity to make it clear that “An image like that has very painful resonance within our culture,” she said. “Images are very powerful for artists and cultural producers who produce and create content.”
As Metrican said, images are incredibly significant. Whether or not one intends to upset others doesn’t matter—intentions do not matter.
What matters is the effect that your actions, your art and your words have on others. This is not only an important moment for the HBI but the entirety of the art community in general. The content one creates can be interpreted any number of ways and taking into account how it may or may not hurt a potential viewer is important. That isn’t a defense of censorship or political correctness, it is advocating for creators to take responsibility of their content and accountability for the potential consequences.
As hosts and event curators, being unprepared or frozen is unacceptable. There are many departments on the Brandeis campus that would not handle this situation well. The way HBI handled the initial situation says a lot about what’s lacking on the Brandeis campus in terms of ways to handle uncomfortable and controversial situations.
Director Lisa Joffe said, “In terms of what will follow… I think it was a learning moment for all of us. We are going to be meeting with Mark Brimhall-Vargas from the Office of Diversity to talk about what are strategies to use in these kinds of situations and to know that there isn’t a perfect strategy, but it’s our obligation to engage with these things when they happen in real time.”
I appreciate that Lisa Joffe, Amy Powell and Susan Metrican were willing to talk to me, but concrete steps should be put in place so that this doesn’t happen again. The way HBI handled the situation proves that there needs to be more diversity training on the Brandeis campus for all departments.