A private school near Boston removed a painted portrait by its artist-in-residence for depicting a young woman with her middle finger raised in protest in front of a hotel with a sign bearing the Trump name. The artist decried the removal as censorship, while the administration saw it as an opportunity to cultivate campus discussion around it.
Noble & Greenough School, often referred to as Nobles, is an elite private school in Dedham, Massachusetts, approximately 10 miles southwest of Boston. The school has nearly 630 students, across grades 7 through 12. The school offers several unique features, including five-day on-campus boarding for about 50 of its students.
Nobles also features an artist-in-residence program that allows artists to live and work at the school for eight weeks, culminating in an exhibition in the school’s Foster Gallery. Artists-in-residence at Nobles receive a $2,500 stipend, plus room and board.
Catherine Hall has served as the headmaster of Noble and Greenough School since October 2017.
Nadya Cuevas is a Puerto Rican visual artist who was the artist-in-residence at Nobles in Fall 2018.
In October 2018, Cuevas created an exhibit of 100 portraits called “FluidIdentity,” which sought to explore the artist’s Latinx identity through a variety of lenses. According to the Boston Globe, one part of the exhibit featured a series of portraits based on an online movement of women “reclaiming the #Latina tag” to push back on hypersexualized depictions of Latina women in the media.
But one of the portraits in particular, and its accompanying text, garnered more attention than most. The image in question showed a young woman (not Cuevas) raising her middle finger in front of a hotel bearing the name of President Donald Trump, as well as an accompanying canvas that featured her words.
“Me walking around DC last week,” read the accompanying text, according to the Globe. “I noticed Trump is opening a new hotel here and I had to do this. Talking down on Latinos especially my people of Mexico.”
Administration removes portrait, sparking campus dialogue
On Oct. 5, 2018, the school removed the portrait and text, saying the level of profanity displayed (i.e. the middle finger) was inappropriate for the school setting, according to the Globe.
“In the larger art world, we certainly understand that this kind of art has a wonderful place, but in a seventh through 12th grade school we have to be judicious at times,” Hall said.
Though the portrait’s vulgarity was the ultimate deciding factor, the political message expressed also had a role in the decision to remove the piece. “Some were offended for political reasons and feeling that it set a culture of silence and made it feel less safe to speak up with different views,” Hall said, according to the Globe. “Most of what I heard was that the profanity was disrespectful to the climate and culture we’re trying to build.”
The decision was a “tough judgment call,” according to Hall, but constituted “censorship,” according to Cuevas.
“The time has come, there’s conversation of censorship. In Violation… illegal… #art #latinx i have stirred some feathers… to be continued,” Cuevas tweeted on Oct. 4, once controversy over the work had arisen.
On October 6, Cuevas posted a picture of the removed artwork and commentary on Instagram, overlayed by the word “CENSORED.” “#censorship in #art complex conversations being forced onto young people #artmatters #latinx #voice #boston,” reads the caption.
Cuevas said students have generally reacted well to her work throughout her residency, and noted the importance of developing empathy through art.
“Students approached me and said that they felt finally validated on campus […] that their voice was present now and they were excited a Puerto Rican or a Latina was showing work in their school,” Cuevas said. Students must “be empathetic to different views […] to be able to listen to others’ stories because these stories are real.”
Hall also saw the incident as an opportunity for campus discourse. The headmaster and the artist planned to talk with students at an assembly about the portrait and its removal, giving them the chance to engage with the issue, with Cuevas and with her art, according to the Globe.
“We’re finding that actually this alone serves as an opportunity for further conversation,” Hall said.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded November 4, 2018