Jason Lesonick thought it was a great idea: When a Hurricane Katrina benefit at Duquesne University called for artwork with Deep South themes, the second-year senior created a three-panel piece lampooning antebellum life. "The Southern Belles," satirizing slave-holders and Old South gender politics, hung in the student-union ballroom for one night in November. Other students "loved it," says Lesonick. "They said, 'That is so you, Jason.'"
But when it hung the week of Jan. 9 in the campus's Les Idees Gallery, "Southern Belles" evoked a different response. It had been scheduled to hang only through Sun., Jan. 15, but the school's administrative cabinet found one panel of the comic-strip-style artwork offensive to minorities and got it removed Jan. 13. University spokesperson Bridget Fare says the process began with a complaint by someone (a university staffer, she believes) to Father Sean Hogan, the executive president for student life at the Catholic school. The cabinet (composed of Duquesne's vice presidents) determined that the work also contradicted Duquesne's mission, which Fare says "is founded on respect for the rights, dignity and worth of every individual in the University community."
One panel of "Southern Belles," rendered in black ink on bristol board, depicts a scantily clad young woman named "Lulu Belle" getting corseted; a second shows "Massa Belle's nephew" in a carnal embrace with an African-American stable man. The panel that the cabinet found offensive depicts a mutton-chopped man in formal attire offering a soup bone to a black man who kneels beside him, tongue lolling and begging like a dog. The caption reads, "Mother of Jefferson Davis! Massa Belle, he feeds his slaves right from the table."
The Les Idees show by Lesonick and two other students opened Jan. 9; a pop-and-cookies reception followed Jan. 12. The next morning, associate professor of art history Madeline Archer, director of Duquesne's studio arts program, received a phone call from Francesco Cesareo, dean of the McAnulty College of Liberal Arts. Fare says the cabinet's decision prompted "a cordial conversation" between Archer and Cesareo about removing the artwork. Archer describes the exchange as closer to an order. "This was not a discussion," she says. "I told the dean I disagree with the decision, and that I thought that it was an unhealthy decision."
Archer and Lesonick "thought the only folks who would be offended by this would be a slave-owner," says Lesonick, of Robinson Township. He contends "Southern Belles" is relevant to contemporary racial politics -- as reflected, for instance, in the Katrina aftermath.
Archer, who has directed the studio-arts program since its inception eight years ago, says that while she's previously fielded complaints about depictions of nude bodies on campus, this is the first time university officials have asked that she remove artwork.
Fare says Lesonick's case was the first use of a policy developed in 2004 following "complaints and questions about other artwork involving sexual acts." The policy states that artwork shown at the gallery must conform "to Catholic moral and spiritual values"; the policy also rules out "obscene artwork and any art offensive to a particular race, religion, gender or ethnic group." Lesonick's piece would have been fine in a classroom, Fare adds. "It's the issue of where it was displayed."
Because Duquesne is a private institution, Lesonick acknowledges he has no legal recourse. But he says he plans to deliver a letter protesting the artwork's removal to university President Charles J. Dougherty and Provost Ralph Pearson. He worries that a conservative campus environment fostered by administrators will squelch campus discussion: "I just think in the 21st century, they may be a tad out of touch with some of these issues."