Providence College Cancels Exhibition Over “Anti-Catholic” Artwork

The work “Prayers to Nana Buruku altar” (2017) was flagged by Providence College administrators for containing imagery offensive to the Catholic faith. (photo by and courtesy Shey Rivera Ríos)

A group exhibition at the Reilly Gallery at Providence College (PC) was abruptly canceled just two weeks before its opening because school officials deemed the work of one artist to be “anti-Catholic.” Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Sean Reid has announced his resignation amid the fallout from the controversy.

Featuring the work of Shey “Ri Acu” Rivera Ríos, Feda Eid, and Luana Morales, Nothing Lives Alone was supposed to go on view on March 28 at an art gallery of the private Catholic university, operated by the Dominican Order in Rhode Island. Scheduled to run until September 27, the exhibition featured video installations grappling with human connection to the land.

But several past artworks by Rivera Ríos, not included in the show, were flagged by administrators. Provost Reid emailed Providence College Galleries’s (PCG) Director and Chief Curator Carol Stakenas on March 12 claiming that a 2017 installation by the artist contained imagery that was “hurtful and offensive to many of the Catholic faith.” Reid specifically cited the “manipulated sacred imagery” of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in Rivera Ríos’s mixed-media work “Prayers to Nana Buruku altar” (2017), despite the fact that it was not included in the Nothing Lives Alone exhibition. An interrogation of colonialist narratives in the Caribbean, the work consists of a black altar to Orisha matriarch Nana Buruku and incorporates an image of Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Madonna with Child and Scenes from the Life of St. Anne” (1452) modified with gold doodles of various symbols including eyes, horns, and question marks.

“Ultimately, in my judgment, the college has the right and obligation not to sponsor and house the work of an artist at PCG who could reasonably be understood to be expressing contempt for [Catholic] faith and its sacred imagery,” Reid wrote in a March 20 email to the college’s faculty, referring to “Prayers to Nana Buruku altar” as “sacrilegious.”

Reid also claimed that the exhibition organizers did not secure approval from their divisional leader, as required by PC’s outside speaker policy implemented in 2015. 

Accusing Providence College of “censorship,” Rivera Ríos told Hyperallergic that the cancellation has fractured their relationship with the university. They are currently fundraising to support the presentation of a different version of the exhibition, aptly titled Everything Living Fights Back, at the Providence community art space Aunty’s House from May 31 through June 16.

“In this situation, my agency as an artist was taken away and that has caused me harm,” Rivera Ríos said. “I am again left questioning: How can institutions truly be safe places for artists, when they fail at the practice of care and respect for our work and wellbeing?”

Platano Ancestor Room 1 hi res
Still from Shey Rivera Ríos’s “Platano Ancestor Room 1” (2023), which was meant to be displayed in the show Nothing Lives Alone (image by and courtesy Shey Rivera Ríos)

Responding to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Providence College spokesperson Steve Maurano said that the school’s administration “would have had the same reaction to the desecration of sacred icons of any other faith, or the denigration of any other ethnic or affinity group.” 

“To my knowledge (and I have been working at the College for almost thirteen years), this is the first time the College has ever prevented a proposed art exhibition from moving forward,” Maurano added.

The fallout from the cancellation was swift, generating a critical response from the school’s Art History Chair Paul Crenshaw and an open letter from PC faculty and staff who decried the provost’s decision as undermining the commitment to academic freedom.

“This decision illustrates a homophobic, racist, and colonial version of Catholicism that is routinely empowered to steer decisions and practices at this college — a bias and orientation it is our duty as members of this community to call out,” PC faculty wrote in the missive, which has received at least 377 signatures from alumni, teachers, staff, and students. 

Feda Eid
Feda Eid’s photograph “Making Rose Water Out of Roses” (2023) was among the artworks selected for the now-canceled exhibition.

Local arts organizations have also voiced their support for Rivera Ríos, including the nonprofit AS220 and feminist art space Dirt Palace, which additionally announced that it is ending its relationship with Providence College Galleries.

On April 22, PC announced Reid’s resignation. Spokesperson Maurano told Hyperallergic that he has agreed to stay on through the end of the academic year, which ends on May 19, but may remain in the position “until the end of the fiscal year if necessary.”

Audrey Raupp, a third-year psychology and studio-ceramics student at PC, told Hyperallergic that she was “shocked and angry” by the show’s cancellation. 

“The show had a lot of love put into it from Shey [Rivera Ríos] and the other artists, the gallery director Carol Stakenas, and the other art and art history faculty,” Raupp said, adding that Reid’s decision has “strained” students’ relationship with PC administration “because it is clear that they do not value our education.”

“Before the situation, I had already felt like a tuition number rather than a living person on this campus; now, I think my feelings are the truth,” Raupp said.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top