MANCHESTER — The New Hampshire Institute of Art has decided it will not hang a student’s painting at an upcoming exhibition after a large portion of the student body condemned the work as racist and pledged not to display their own art alongside it.
The Union Leader has not seen the painting but one senior student, Kaitlyn Hanson, said it shows a former student, who is African American, holding a banana to her ear like a phone, evoking racist portrayals of African Americans as monkeys.
The painter, who is white, according to Hanson, had been working on the picture in a school studio for months despite repeated complaints about the image from other students. Neither Hanson nor the school identified the artist or the former student depicted in the painting.
Last week, the painting was selected by a panel and appeared in the school’s Go Figure exhibition. Nine students removed their own artwork from that exhibit in protest, said Hanson, who is a member of the school’s Student Leadership Committee.
In an email to students on Thursday, Dean of Undergraduate Studies Bill Schaaf wrote that NHIA’s administration regrets the offense the painting has caused.
The Go Figure exhibition “exposed critical flaws in our curatorial process, enabling an offensive piece of art to be displayed,” he wrote.
“In response, the NHIA administration is taking steps to review the guidelines and expectations around our student exhibitions,” Schaaf continued. “Most immediately the piece in question was removed from the Go Figure show and it will not be included in the annual BFA Exhibition in May.”
The Student Leadership Committee organized a student forum earlier this week to address the issue. About 70 of the school’s roughly 350 undergraduate students attended, Hanson said.
NHIA seniors must display work at the BFA Exhibition in order to graduate, but many of them pledged not to display their art if the exhibition also included the painting.
“This is an institution that claims it will give the space and the appropriate opportunities for every student at this school to get an education,” Hanson said. “In an environment where someone can come in and essentially say through their artwork that black people are monkeys, that they’re lesser, that they’re not people, that’s not an environment in which students can learn.”
The majority of NHIA’s students — 56 percent — identify as white. The race and ethnicity of an additional 31 percent of the undergraduate student body is unknown, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
African American, Asian and Native American students each make up 1 percent of the student body, while Latino students account for 6 percent.
In his letter to students, Schaaf said that the Student Leadership Committee will hold another forum for students and staff on April 22 to discuss issues of race and diversity.
“Larger considerations have emerged from this single incident, and we would like to use this experience as an opportunity for a more global examination of issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity,” he wrote. “It is important to consider issues of identity within our college community and how they connect with the broader social context.”