The assignment seemed simple enough. Reverend Jeff Moore, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley Branch of the NAACP, approached visual artist Mark Harris and asked him to pull together a small collection of his artwork to show in the lobby of the administrative offices of the East Side Union High School District in San Jose for Black History Month in February.
That’s exactly what Harris did, curating together 11 paintings, in consultation with Moore, who works at the district’s Independence High School as a counselor.
“I would say it’s agitprop,” says Harris of the selection of works, done in mixed media, collage, acrylic and egg tempera. “It’s definitely something thought-provoking. It’s not something you’re going to walk by and not have a second thought about.”
A few hours after the artist’s paintings went up on display, they were taken down. Harris heard the news about the removal second-hand from Moore.
“Some parents who’d come into the administration offices were offended by the work.” Moore also said the district superintendent, Chris Funk said a school district shouldn’t take a political stance, “which I think is ridiculous,” Harris says. “The fact that the superintendent was uncomfortable with the exhibit was disappointing also.”
Art has gone up on display to celebrate African American History Month at the offices for the past three years. Funk says that to date, there had been no concerns in part because the displays had been made up of historical artifacts like books, quilts, and representations of famous African Americans.
“I had no intention to embarrass or harm Mr. Harris,” Funk says. “He seems to be a very talented artist. I’m sorry he got caught up in a situation where Mr. Moore was not upfront about what his motives were and what his expectations were. I didn’t approve the art. I didn’t approve the artist. I didn’t have a chance to review the art beforehand. It was just — smack, hit you in the face — when you walked in. That’s why I took it down.”
Funk says there is a time and place for political expression, such as at the recent March on Washington or at last weekend’s airport protests. “But we’re not here to advocate one position or another as a public institution,” Funk says about his decision to remove Harris’ works. “I have Republicans and Democrats on my board, among my teachers.”
Moore says he did not intend to surprise Funk and his colleagues. He says he visited the offices to talk to the superintendent at one point before the exhibition went up, but that Funk was in a meeting when he arrived. Past displays, Moore says, have in fact included content that could be deemed as political, ranging, subject-wise, from African culture to figures like Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and President Barack Obama.
Much of the material for those exhibitions was pulled from Moore’s own home, as well as the homes of other people involved with African American Student Advocates, a district stakeholder group made up largely of adults.
“How many people were offended? How many people were upset?” Moore says. “White supremacy is a topic of conversation right now. I thought this was timely.”
Moore says the African American Student Advocates had a previously scheduled meeting Thursday night at which Harris was to speak about his art work at the administrative offices. Now, he will be talking about the fact it was taken down, and retrieving the paintings to bring them home.
“My artwork expresses the real visceral outrage that a lot of African Americans have about the violence we’re still subjected to in the 21st century,” Harris says. “For centuries, we have been told not to speak out about it. You don’t have to like it. It’s not only my history. This is American history.”