A Black artist’s photos of campus protests were removed from a gallery exhibit set to debut at UNC-Chapel Hill last week. Then, days before it was scheduled to open, the entire exhibit was abruptly canceled.
The photographer, Cornell Watson, calls it censorship.
The exhibit, titled “Tarred Healing Sights/Sites of Remembrance,” was created to elevate sacred Black spaces around Chapel Hill that had been forgotten, overlooked or disrespected as UNC reckons with its history. Watson said the photos in the exhibit showing student protests represented the fight that is inherently part of healing.
“Deciding that only part of the story be told was disappointing,” Watson said. “Deciding that the story not be told at all is even more disappointing.”
But the UNC gallery’s curator, a Black man himself, says the cancellation came because the exhibit appeared in the Washington Post and included the photos that were cut, before the UNC exhibit was to open. He denied the claim that they censored Watson, and said the controversy over the photos was a disagreement between the gallery and its artist over the theme of the exhibit.
Watson’s Instagram post detailing the situation collected nearly 150 comments, many of which shamed UNC and claimed that this was another example of UNC ignoring and silencing the Black experience at North Carolina’s flagship university. Though the controversy in this case is not clear cut — because it delves into artist residency contracts and etiquette — it sheds light on the reputation UNC has and the constant struggle between the institution and people of color in the university community.
Chapel Hill historian Danita Mason-Hogans saw the full photo series for the first time when it ran online in the Post. The work deeply resonated with her as it spoke to her roots. Then, she heard about the controversy.
Mason-Hogans, who used to manage an art gallery, said she understands the push and pull of creative directions when working with artists. But she said this situation is part of a larger picture where UNC has always crafted a narrative that benefited the university.
“I can’t say that this piece, in particular, follows that trajectory,” Mason-Hogans said. “But what I can say is that UNC has earned the perception that it has from the Black community.”
Honoring Black spaces in Chapel Hill
Watson, a Black photographer from Durham, accepted an invitation to be the fall 2021 visiting artist at UNC’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. That included a $5,000 stipend.
The center’s director, Joseph Jordan, reached out to Watson praising his previous photo series in the Post titled “Behind the Mask,” which shows the way that Black people walk through life having to pretend to be someone else in certain situations to protect themselves.
Watson saw this artist residency as an opportunity to continue that work.
His photos would be featured in an exhibit “that focuses on ‘spaces of memory’ around the lives of UNC’s Black community(ies)” as UNC is reckoning with its racial history, the offer letter says. It also said the Stone Center would be his “partner in this endeavor” and get his photos printed and framed to display in the gallery.
The Stone Center staff gave Watson a list of places in Chapel Hill that they wanted him to explore and create documentary images around. They included the Unsung Founders Memorial that honors the people of color who built the university, the historically Black Rogers-Eubanks community and the Barbee-Hargraves Historic Slave Cemetery. The staff even introduced Watson to some of the families who were featured in the photos.
Mason-Hogans, the local historian, felt a spiritual connection to the series as a seventh-generation Chapel Hillian with close ancestral ties to the school. Her ancestors were enslaved by the family that donated the land on which UNC and the town is built and were slaves and servants for the university. She’s also related, in some way, to those buried in Barbee Cemetery.
“[Watson’s] absolutely stunning work was able to tell some of the stories of our struggle here in Chapel Hill,” Mason-Hogans said. “I felt so good about the fact that we were able to see ourselves through his work.”
Campus protest photos dropped
By chance, the start of Watson’s residency coincided with the height of the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy that brought national attention to UNC and its trustees last summer. University leaders were criticized for diverging from precedent and failing to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones, a Black journalist best known for her work on The 1619 Project. The project, which explores the legacy of Black Americans and slavery in the U.S., was at the heart of the debate and pushback from the UNC-CH journalism school’s top donor.
The Stone Center itself is named after former UNC professor Sonja Haynes Stone, a Black woman who prompted similar protests in 1979 after she was denied tenure.
Watson photographed a Black Student Movement demonstration on campus last year, where student leaders shouted into a bullhorn raising concerns about the tenure situation, the upkeep of the Unsung Founders Memorial, UNC’s Silent Sam Confederate monument lawsuit and negative experiences of Black and brown students. He captured the scene of protesters with hand-made signs standing in a ballroom at The Carolina Inn at a trustees meeting that later erupted into a shouting match where campus police shoved student activists out of the room.
Watson said he saw the protests as a thread to connect the history of those sacred spaces to the present day.
“It’s also a major part of this story that I put together about the places that I was having this all centered around, which was healing,” Watson said. “Fighting is part of healing.”
Another photo featured UNC-CH Vice Chancellor Clayton Somers, who helped orchestrate the controversial Silent Sam lawsuit settlement, staring back at the camera during a Black Student Movement protest at a trustees meeting.
But Jordan and other Stone Center staff members did not want those images displayed.
As gallery curator, Jordan said those particular photos were excluded because they did not reflect the tone or subject matter of the exhibit they were building. He further explained to members of the media that this process is a collaboration with artists and they generally don’t let people do whatever they want to do.
But Watson said when he turned in his photo series in December, he was caught off-guard by the pushback because “my impression of a residency was there would be artistic freedom,” he said. Cutting that section out was like cutting away at one of the major points of the artist statement so that they wouldn’t rock the boat too hard, Watson said.
“It’s antithetical to the whole reason they reached out to me,” Watson said.
Watson only agreed to remove the photos after being given an ultimatum of either having an exhibition with only part of the photo story or no exhibition at all, he said.
And at the end of the day, he owns the photos and could take them to other places, Watson said.
There was nothing in Watson’s contract that prohibited him from sharing his work elsewhere, but that’s what got the exhibit canceled weeks later.
One show canceled, another coming
The photo exhibit was set to debut in the gallery in late January, after being rescheduled from September because Watson needed more time. Then the COVID-19 omicron variant and a scheduling conflict further delayed the show to late February.
The new exhibit opening date was set for Feb. 23. The photos were printed and laid out in the gallery space and approved by Watson, but the pieces were never mounted for the public showing.
On Feb. 18, Watson’s photo essay — which included the full set of photos — was published in the Post’s In Sight photography blog. That same day, Jordan reached out to Watson to tell him that UNC was canceling the exhibit.
Watson had already asked the Post to publish his work and figured his full series would post after the show during Black History Month without conflict. That didn’t happen.
But Watson suggested that Jordan’s decision might’ve been made out of fear of retribution from UNC administrators or trustees.
Jordan, though, said university leaders did not interfere and the decision was made by him and Stone Center staff. He said the show was canceled because the exhibit debuted in the Post under the same title and included the photos they agreed to remove.
“It disrespects the families that cooperated with him and disrespects us that he did that,” Jordan said. “He wants those pieces to be seen and he wanted them to be seen as part of this and he didn’t care how we felt about it.”
The contract didn’t explicitly say anything about publishing the work outside the gallery. Jordan said they might need to edit the language of future contracts to prevent something like this from happening again.
He said he would’ve been thrilled to see the series in the Post had it followed opening night at the gallery. He also suggested featuring the “problematic” photos in a different exhibit in the gallery at another time.
A ‘cycle of disrespect’
Julia Clark, vice president of UNC’s Black Student Movement, said she wasn’t surprised to hear the photos of the student protests were excluded from the exhibition. One photo featured Clark speaking at a demonstration to protest the university’s failure to give Hannah-Jones tenure.
“This is not only a censorship of a Black artist and movement of Black students,” Clark said. “It is a reduction of something that is far larger than me or my organization.”
She said excluding those photos implies that the Black Student Movement is not part of the legacy of activism at UNC. The group is UNC’s largest and longest-lasting student organization that has been at the forefront of racial and social issues on campus and played an integral role in establishing the Stone Center.
“To say we should be removed is an erasure and reduction of the history of social movement not only on this campus but in this community,” Clark said.
This is just another part of “a cycle of disrespect” Black and brown students and organizations have felt at UNC, Clark said. She added that UNC has “a special way of creating hopelessness” in minority students, and part of combating this hopelessness is through resistance.
Student activists have been fighting for equity on campus and more diversity on the faculty and the predominantly white-male leadership boards. They’ve organized protests calling out university actions that harm Black students, like when UNC struck a deal to give $2.5 million and the Silent Sam statue to a Confederate group.
They’ve called for the reduction of campus police officers who they say overly patrol Black students. And they’re still working to get names removed from buildings on campus that honor white supremacists.
“These photos speak to resistance more than anything,” Clark said.
Regardless of who is to blame for the canceled exhibit, Mason-Hogans said she is not interested in pitting Black organizations or Black people against each other. Instead, she and Black Student Movement leaders are working toward finding a place in Chapel Hill to showcase Watson’s work in a meaningful way.
“Chapel Hill is such a transient community,” Mason-Hogans said. “People come and cycle in every four to six years and don’t have a sense of the history of Chapel Hill.”
This exhibit would offer that education if they find a space to show it.
“Those Black cemeteries, the graves for our ancestors they have gone for so many years being disrespected, not honored and not valued,” Mason-Hogans said.
“It’s important to see his work and have our stories lifted up like this.”
This story was originally published March 1, 2022 3:02 PM.