Carrying the Weight of Institutional Inaction

“Accountability” is an overarching term for describing what is required to proactively address systemic problems and grave abuses of power. The ineffectual and sometimes sordid policies of government, cultural and educational institutions are repeatedly exposed in a public forum, but often come out unscathed. It begs the question, if they are not truly facing the consequences of their actions, why would they be compelled to change their problematic practices? This is especially troubling in the case of educational spaces, where schools often espouse mission statements suggesting their goal is to promote transformative change and diversity.

Among the many activists seeking accountability and change within these institutions are visual artists. There has been a range of responses from artists whose work critiques the action (or inaction) of educational settings in light of disturbing systemic issues such as sexual assault and racism.

Emma Sulkowicz stands in front of the rules of engagement for Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Emma Sulkowicz was a student at Columbia University in 2014 when she performed Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight). The artwork is symbolic of her experience being sexually assaulted in her dorm room by a classmate, the university’s response to the incident and the ongoing aftermath of her account being scrutinized throughout the culture at large.

During the entire school year, Sulkowicz walked around the campus carrying her fifty pound dorm room mattress. She vowed to continue to carry the mattress until graduation, or until her attacker was expelled from the school. The latter never happened and the performance culminated with Sulkowicz bringing the mattress up onto the stage to receive her diploma at the graduation ceremony. By employing a highly public form of artistic expression, Sulkowicz merged the endurance-based performance genre with an act of socially engaged protest. Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight) inspired a global day of protests against sexual and domestic violence. Students re-enacted Sulkowicz’s symbolic performance by collectively carrying mattresses across their schools’ campuses (see: Cascone, 2014).

Although the performance successfully raised awareness and garnered Sulkowicz a wave of support, there were prominent voices in both cultural and educational communities that sought to dismiss her narrative and frame the performance as opportunistic. The school’s response further muddled and obfuscated the issue of sexual assault on campus and the appropriate course of action that a school should take (see: Bazelon, 2015). Ultimately, Columbia University cleared her alleged rapist of any wrongdoing, while also giving Sulkowicz academic and logistical support to fulfill the performance as her senior thesis project.

To further hinder matters of dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence in educational settings, former Educational Secretary, Betsy DeVos went so far as to dismantle some critical protections for students on campus who experienced sexual assault.

Unfortunately, there are too many missed opportunities for profound teachable moments because universities are able to skirt responsibility for accusations of wrongdoing. Therefore policies that would deal with incidents affecting campus life and student well-being are not often enacted. This leaves students and faculty in limbo with regards to their safety and agency to feel empowered and represented. Lack of acknowledgment and action for righting past wrongs is currently being scrutinized at Harvard University via a public art installation seeking to hold the university accountable for its connections to slavery.

The work of art is called Inclusions (2022) by students Kiana Rawji, Cecilia Zhou and Luke Reeve. Carved bricks are held in place by a steel armature that holds visual resemblance to the bars on a jail cell or cage. The bricks are engraved with words and phrases, such as “Free Renty,” which refers to a nineteenth century daguerreotype (the first widely available photographic process) photograph of Renty Taylor, a slave whose body was subjugated to a pseudo-scientific study on polygenism. Polygenism was a white supremacist hypothesis which suggested that each racial group of humans had a different origin, and therefore, some races were biologically and culturally superior to others. It was seen as a “rational” way for whites to justify slavery and other oppressive social, cultural and economic tactics against non-white communities.

Historically, Harvard University finds itself at the crux of polygenism. In 1850, Harvard professor Louis Agassiz commissioned a photographer named Joseph T. Zealy to take daguerreotype images of enslaved men and women to support his studies of polygenism. The resulting images are still in Harvard University’s possession today as part of the Peabody Museum’s collection. Tamara Lanier, who is Renty Taylor’s descendant, has been fighting for the right to have her ancestor’s photographs returned to the family via an ongoing lawsuit.

The theory of polygenism has been discredited for a long time, but the images of Renty Taylor and other Black individuals who had their photographs taken, likely without any agency over being photographed, remain a scarring and deplorable expression of our nation’s lack of respect for bodily autonomy. In one article from a series on Hyperallergic covering Lanier’s lawsuit against Harvard, Valentina Di Liscia (2021) writes:

“Nearly two centuries later, with a greater sensitivity to the circumstances of their creation and enduring racial inequities, the images are difficult to characterize. The word ‘portraits,’ with its connotation of honorable remembrance, feels ill-fitting. Calling the figures ‘sitters’ implies a granting of consent that was absent from the photographs; “subjects” at least nods to the violent dynamics of subordination. But the term Agassiz preferred when referring to Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty, who were enslaved in South Carolina when they were forced to strip naked and pose for Zealy’s pictures in the service of white supremacy, was ‘specimens.'”

After Agassiz left these photographs with the university, they largely fell into obscurity, tucked away in the Peabody’s attic. When the photographs were rediscovered in 1976, a former staff member named Ellie Reichlin made an effort to identify the individuals in the photographs and trace their lineage (see: Reichlin, 1977). However, the school itself did not do any sort of outreach to descendants of the enslaved people who it had exploited for research purposes. To add further insult to injury, the Peabody Museum has been charging fees starting “at $50 for use of the photos, in addition to an order processing fee for providing the images themselves” (Di Liscia, 2021). The university eventually dropped all fees for these images, which are in the public domain. However, as Lanier argues in her lawsuit, Harvard has already profited significantly from these images, including their use in a 1986 anthropology textbook. Additionally, Renty’s photograph is on the cover of the exhibition catalog for the 1986 exhibition From Site to Sight, which was organized by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and traveled throughout the country.

The photograph of Renty Taylor nefariously commissioned by former Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of the two aforementioned fights against Columbia and Harvard, are cases where schools fail to support or recognize bodily autonomy and consent. In both instances, an individual’s well-being was betrayed by a lack of accountability on the part of the schools to adequately deal with past and present trauma. It may sound ironic, but going forward, schools have to do a better job at learning.

Harvard’s mission is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” They claim to “do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” Columbia’s mission statement does not even touch on any character values, apart from a vague commitment to “support research and teaching on global issues.”

If these schools expect their students to become catalysts for transformative change and champions of diversity, then they should lead by example. Their prior mistakes, failures and nefarious connections to historical atrocities should be the catalyst for supporting individuals and communities that they have long marginalized. They need to carry the weight of their past institutional inaction and have it truly burden them until it becomes a teachable moment leading to true change.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bazelon, Emma. “Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?” New York Times, 29 May 2015.

Belsha, Kalyn. “‘Am I not allowed to mention myself?’ Schools grapple with new restrictions on teaching about gender and sexuality,” Chalkbeat, 12 April 2022.

Cascone, Sarah. “Mattress Performance Art Inspires National Movement,” artnet, 31 October 2014.

Di Liscia, Valentina. “Legal Precedents or Reparations? Lawsuit Against Harvard May Decide Who Owns Images of Enslaved People,” Hyperallergic, 27 October 2021.

Lampen, Claire. “What Is the Conservative Beef With ‘Social -Emotional Learning’?” The Cut, 19 April 2022.

Paz, Franco. “Harvard Is Paying a Small Price for Laundering Its Past,” Hyperallergic, 10 May 2022.

Reichlin, Elinor. “Faces of Slavery: A Historical Find,” American Heritage, volume 28, issue 4, 1977.

Thomas, P.L. “Resignation,” Academic Freedom Isn’t Free, 13 May 2022.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s