UB artist behind controversial signs explains meaning of work

Sean E. McCormick, Staff Writer

“I did not invent racism,” Ashley Powell, the artist behind the controversial ‘WHITE ONLY’ and ‘BLACK ONLY’ signs that appeared on the University of Buffalo’s campus last week, said.

“I wanted to implicate white privilege in a very tangible way that would force people to feel it. I could not have done this with a painting on a wall in a gallery. I had to put it in their space with them.”

This ‘simple action’ has sparked a national dialogue. From The New York Times to ABC News, Powell has received both rage and respect for her bold installation. The day after the signs were posted, Powell addressed the Black Student Union and took responsibility for her installation.

The University of Buffalo’s Twitter dispatch, @ubcommunications, announced:

“UB is a safe place that values & respects diversity. This incident does NOT reflect who we are!”

Another commentator wrote: “She took her race many steps backwards with her rant and selfishly caused pain for innocent students.”

Powell feels racism will not end if those who are affected by it choose to remain silent. She believes that individuals must use their ‘personal agency’ to stand up against a system which privileges white over black in America.

“I am an individual and my simple action was to paste paper onto cardboard and stick it on a wall,” said Powell.

In her letter to UB’s school newspaper, The Spectrum, Powell stated, “Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does. Any white person who would walk past these signs without ripping them down, shows a disturbing compliance with this system.”

Powell is not surprised by the negative reactions to her installation.

“I was calling out the conservative right wing and I am not surprised by their response. It only proves that racism is still alive in America,” she said.

“We would rather talk about anything other than racism,” Powell said. “It’s difficult to reconcile with anything in our lives, so something as heavy as generational trauma or contemporary oppression – it’s very difficult to confront those things, but it’s something we have to do.”

Powell speaks fluidly about issues of race, unafraid to address the root causes of its survival in contemporary society.

“People need to make a choice. They need to either attempt to end racism through their individual agency or they need to admit that they are compliant with a racist system and that they are part of the problem,” Powell said.

Powell’s work does not shy away from controversial subjects. Inspired by Kara Walker’s artistic exploration of race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity, Powell arrived at the University of Buffalo’s art program as a member of the esteemed Arthur A. Schomburg Fellowship. As a Schomburg Fellow, Powell feels she has been forced to defend her inclusion in the program due to her race.

“Critics did not look at the fact that I graduated with a very high GPA, that I had a good resume, and a good portfolio,” Powell said.

As race plays into a multitude of her subjective experiences, she says she has “aimed to portray the historical buildup of issues concerning black hair and black beauty in America, and understand how those issues impact contemporary times.”

Her previous works have used a variety of materials including wood, tar, acrylic paint, ink, rope, human hair, steel wool, electrical cord, shredded paper, yarn, twine, barbed wire, and even a bird’s nest.

“I use whatever medium it takes to get the point across,” Powell said.

Previous shows include, ‘Discussions on Hair,’ ‘N—-r Dolls,’ ‘Remnants and Byproducts,’ and ‘Way Down in N—aville.’

Powell identifies as a socio-political artist who is still “trying to understand and finesse her articulation.” Her ideas emerge from contemplating possible solutions, rather than dwelling on the magnitude of problems. She asks herself, ‘What else can I do to help bring about change?’ and believes that meaningful change begins from the “inside out, rather than the outside in.”

Powell remembers coming home from art class when she was eight years old and confidently telling her parents, “I am going to be an artist.” She maintained art as a minor during her undergraduate work until a professor convinced her that she could pursue her dream.

“I went to an art program in high school, but when you go to college you are encouraged to pursue a major that is going to help you pay bills. Even in college I bounced around through a couple majors, but I always had art as a minor. It was a non-major course I had with Professor Carol Horst at Southeast Missouri State University, and she looked at my work and asked me, ‘Why aren’t you an art major?’”

Since then, her work has been an increasingly poignant dialogue with the traumatic effects of racism. Powell reminiscences on her “grandiose and naïve” childhood dreams of making friends in all walks of life until she “began feeling the stereotypes we get at a young age.”

Acutely conscious of other’s perceptions, Powell addresses her discomfort with stereotypes in shows like ‘N—-r Dolls,’ which was “inspired when I first heard someone tell me that they ‘always wanted a black friend.’”

There is hope in Powell’s eyes.

She said,“If ten people, thirty people, or even the Black Student Union decided it was time to make a stand against racism, we could change society much sooner than we have yet to imagine. Stereotyping could become a crude artifact of the past.”

When asked what she sees as the more subtle manifestations of racism, she said, “It can be simple as the way people in your dorm treat you or the way in which your professors address you.”

One of the most troubling aspects for non-white students is that if “these students are having difficulty in class, that difficulty is equated with their non-whiteness.” She believes that our thinking has been manipulated to “see things that non-white people do differently than what white people do.”

She said, “I think that many young people have fallen into the trap of being angry and stopping there. They have fallen into the trap of over self-victimization and stopping there. They fall into the trap of losing all their agency.”

Powell encourages people to acknowledge their anger and frustration with racism, but not to disavow their capability to produce meaningful changes in the fabric of society.

“We can take those situations that make us upset, and then use our agency and intellect to come to a solution so that situation does not happen again,” she said.

Through her art, Powell continues to critique individual compliance with white privilege. A practicing teacher, she hopes to continue teaching and exploring the possibilities of different mediums while focusing on themes of “self-hate, black healing, and white privilege,” she said. Through the implication of the individual, Powell believes she demonstrates how personal agency can produce or eradicate racism.

“Our narratives are not so separate. Our lives are not so different. To continue to move forward as if we did not have an impact on each other’s lives will make us compliant,” Powell said.“I make my work because I want people to grow up loving themselves instead of hating themselves.”

She understands that her ideas will not be easily digested by mainstream culture.

“Persecution is the price we pay for trying to change things for the better. The positives of social change outweigh the negatives of going through that social change,” she said.

In her letter to the editor of the University of Buffalo’s student newspaper, Powell stated the “University at Buffalo is one of the most diverse schools in the country, ironically situated in one of its most segregated and racist cities.”

She hopes that students and faculty will intellectually analyze the veracity of her accusations rather than falling “prey to the mainstream debate.”

Powell said, “Professors that I have never even met from various departments have reached out to me and told me that they are changing their lesson plan for the day and that they support me.”

When asked what she would like to individuals to walk away with after their initial reactions to her ‘WHITE ONLY’ and ‘BLACK ONLY’ signs, Powell said, “I would like people to remember that I am not the reason they feel hurt. Racism is the reason they feel hurt. When people attack this project, they are deflecting by attacking the person who reminded them of race, rather than attacking racism itself.”

Powell pauses and wistfully searches for any unspoken words.

“Yeah, that’s what I want them to walk away with,” she said.