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Racism — Management at the Faculty of Science will now keep a 100-year-old mural by Danish cartoonist and humorist Storm P. covered up after more than 100 critical emails. According to students, the motif is racist and should not be in a Friday bar. After initially rejecting the complaints, the faculty director now supports covering the mural.
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi had not been a student at the University of Copenhagen for more than a couple of weeks.
She had just started on the English-language master’s degree programme in Environment and Development, a Faculty of Science programme located on Frederiksberg Campus, University of Copenhagen (UCPH).
During a break from a lecture, she and two fellow students went down to the local Friday bar Acaciavej, for the first time, to grab a free cup of coffee before the lecture started again.
What on earth is going on? Why is there this wildly racist painting at this Friday bar venue?
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi, student
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi hadn’t been in the room for more than a few minutes before a framed mural caught her attention.
»I thought. Wow. What on earth is going on? Why is there this wildly racist painting at this Friday bar?,« says Yasmin Brandrup-Versi.
She turned to her fellow students, who had not given the image a lot of thought and just shrugged when she drew their attention to it.
»It was so strange. It was as if I was the only person who could see that it was racist. I took a picture of it and did not mention it again to my classmates. Later that day, I met up with some friends, and they agreed with me that it was pretty messed up that they had this picture hanging at a Friday bar venue at UCPH,« she says.
The painting was painted directly on the wall by the artist Robert Storm Petersen, also known as Storm P, in 1922. The room that is today used as a student bar is an old meeting room that Storm P often visited during his lifetime. The room therefore contains four original Storm P murals.
The painting depicts two black people portrayed in very stereotypical caricatures. If you scroll to the bottom of this article, an image of the mural can be seen under a black bar. We warn against potentially offensive content.
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi decided to write a complaint directly to the faculty director at the Faculty of Science, Henrik Zobbe, to the rector and prorector for education at the University of Copenhagen and several different people both at, and around the faculty. In the complaint, she argued that it was a racist motif, and thereby offensive. She also mentioned that she did not think that the accompanying text, a caption near the mural explaining it, was adequate. And she demanded that the painting be immediately removed or covered.
»If you are black or brown, an image like this makes you not want to be in the room at all. It makes you feel insecure, it excludes, and it certainly does not contribute to a safe space,« she says and adds:
»I’m not saying that by removing this image, we should forget our history. But a Friday bar is just not the place to discuss these things. It is completely wrong that people should party, dance, and drink under a picture like this.«
The painting helps maintain and reproduce racist and colonial structures
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi, student
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi’s request was initially refused. Faculty director Henrik Zobbe replied that they had given a lot of thought to the whether the picture should stay. But management – in dialogue with the students who run the Friday bar – had agreed to keep the mural so long as it was accompanied by a sign explaining the context.
»Henrik Zobbe referred to the accompanying caption, which states that the university distances itself from the motif, and now encourages reflection and discussion,« says Yasmin Brandrup-Versi and adds:
»But I completely disagree that this is what is happening. I believe that it contributes to maintaining and reproducing racist and colonial structures rather than setting the stage for a discussion of them.«
She therefore proceeded with the case. First she sent another complaint to the same people mentioned above. Her complaint was then rejected again. Then, with the help of a few friends, she made a post on her Instagram profile, where she encouraged her followers to write a complaint directly to both Henrik Zobbe and the UCPH rector, Henrik C. Wegener.
On her Instagram profile bio, she set up a link that opens a tab with an email to the two leaders with the headline ‘WE DO NOT DRINK AND DANCE TO KU’S UPHOLDING OF RACIST, COLONIAL STRUCTURES’ referring to the Danish acronym ‘KU’ for the University of Copenhagen.
At the time of writing, more than 100 people have sent that email to UCPH management. The post has also received almost 400 likes and has been shared more than 80 times, says Yasmin Brandrup-Versi.
»After management received my second complaint – and a lot of other complaints – the painting has now been covered,« says Yasmin Brandrup-Versi.
The mural has been on public display in Acaciavej since the late nineties, says Henrik Zobbe, faculty director at the Faculty of Science. He was himself a student at Frederiksberg Campus at the time. He remembers how the original Storm P paintings suddenly appeared from under some old paint in the room.
I can see now that this solution was perhaps not adequate
Faculty director Henrik Zobbe, Faculty of Science
Since then, no one at UCPH has actually taken a position on whether the old paintings should be preserved or removed, according to the faculty director. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Henrik Zobbe became aware that the paintings could be deemed offensive.
»I received a complaint two years ago about the painting from a foreign student, who made me aware that the motif was racist. For the first time in many years, I went down and had a look at it, and I could easily see the student’s point of view,« he says.
Zobbe therefore contacted the Storm P. museum for advice on how the university should respond to having original Storm P paintings on the wall that were worthy of preservation and that could not be moved, but which could also be deemed offensive.
»The people from the Storm P. museum said they usually deal with it by putting up a sign next to the work explaining the context. So we opted for this solution last year,« says the faculty director, who also consulted with the students who ran the Friday bar at the time.
At the same time, the painting was restored in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, and it was covered in plexiglass as it was considered to be valuable Danish cultural heritage, says Henrik Zobbe.
Is there a difference between dealing with paintings with racist motifs in a museum, where people actively choose to go — and a university, where you can come upon it completely unprepared?
»Yes, of course there is a difference. But this was the solution we assessed was the best last year. I can see now that this solution was perhaps not adequate.«
When Yasmin Brandrup-Versi contacted Henrik Zobbe with her complaint, he initially referred to the sign on the wall and the many considerations that had taken place about the mural the previous year.
Then he received another complaint from Yasmin Brandrup-Versi. And soon after, emails from students supporting Yasmin Brandrup-Versi’s point of view started flooding in.
Whether or not the mural is racist is not actually open to discussion. It is. In fact, very much so
Mira C. Skadegård, Assistant Professor at Aalborg University
»I have received more than 100 emails. Both the autogenerated emails that have been sent based on Yasmin’s post, but also more personal emails where people explain why a mural like this is offensive and uncomfortable for precisely them. This has really affected me,« says Henrik Zobbe.
In collaboration with the students who run the Friday bar and the chairperson of the Faculty of Science council, the faculty director has therefore decided to cover the painting. At present with a banner advertisement for Tuborg beer, which was hung over the painting on Friday 3 November.
The faculty director is also working on organizing a dialogue meeting where anyone interested is welcome to learn more about the topic together with a number of researchers who deal with racism and discrimination.
»I would like us to work together to learn more about how we deal with material on campus that has cultural and historical value, but which can also be offensive,« says Henrik Zobbe.
Will the painting be permanently covered?
»Yes, I think so. No final decision has been made, because we are just starting with the dialogue meeting. But students are basically not supposed to feel offended in a Friday bar, so of course we need to address that.«
You initially refused to cover the photo, but have changed your mind after numerous complaints. What was it that changed your mind?
»I just think I’ve got wiser. Yasmin was the one who gave me the push in this direction, and I’m glad she did. This is something we all need to practise,« says Henrik Zobbe.
»But of course, it’s also full of dilemmas. Some people will probably criticise us for covering it. It’s not our job, after all, as a university to shield ourselves from the past. It is our job, on the other hand, to safeguard a good and pleasant study environment. And that consideration carries more weight here.«
Mira C. Skadegård is an associate professor at Aalborg University and researches racism and structural discrimination. We have asked her to comment on the mural itself and its positioning, as well as how this type of material can be handled on a university campus in the future.
»Whether or not the mural is racist is not actually open to discussion. It is. In fact, very much so,« she says.
She believes that the accompanying text is an excellent attempt to start a dialogue, but that it lacks information about colonial history and the fact that racism remains a problem today. In addition, the researcher points out that a Friday bar venue might be »the worst possible place to place such a picture.«
We must become better at taking joint responsibility for ensuring that no one is excluded from the community
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi, student
»At a Friday bar, people get drunk and say things that are more stupid than they otherwise would. It is therefore, not at all a place where you can have a good dialogue about such an image. It can probably have the opposite effect,« says Mira C. Skadegård.
According to the researcher, out society’s common understanding and awareness of racism is not yet developed enough for an image with explicitly racist content to be handled well at a Friday bar for students.
»It will help push people out of the community instead,« she says.
The problem is complicated by the fact that the painting cannot be moved, Mira C. Skadegård acknowledges.
»I do not have a clear answer as to how the university should deal with a cultural-historical painting like this. But I find it incredibly problematic for students that it is placed exactly where it is,« she says.
Yasmin Brandrup-Versi is pleased with the support she has received, and that the many protests have now led to the mural being covered. One thing bothers her, however:
Why hasn’t anyone reacted to the painting before?
»My experience is that it is always those who are offended who have to draw attention to it. I experience racism myself, and I therefore may have a greater awareness and understanding of how it hits you,« says Yasmin Brandrup-Versi.
»It’s as if it is invisible to those it doesn’t target. Or they see it but actively choose not to act on it. And it shouldn’t be that way. I think that we should get better at taking joint responsibility for ensuring that no one is excluded from the community.«
Mira C. Skadegård is familiar with the problem:
»Most of us think that we are aware of and concious of racism, sexism and other things that are offensive and exclusionary. But the reality is that we rarely notice it until we feel it on our own body,« she says.
This does not, however, mean that we cannot practice improving our collective consciousness, according to the researcher.
»It often requires that we have had the opportunity to become aware of it. And situations like this might help with that,« she says and adds:
»The next time we see an image with a racist motif, we might consider how that image feels to a minority-racialized person.«