Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Khansa Mahum’s ’19 artwork on the Willard Straight Hall walls during the BSU occupation.

September 21, 2017

Provocative Art Adorns Willard Straight Hall During Takeover

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The night before the Willard Straight Hall sit-in, Khansa Mahum ’19 didn’t sleep a wink.

She was in Uris Library long after most of her classmates had left, and she was walking out as many of them were on their way to early morning classes. But eight hours, $70 and a near Photoshop disaster later, her posters were done.

“I knew that this had to be [done] tomorrow,” Mahum said about the time she conceived of the posters on Wednesday. “This couldn’t wait. I skipped all of my assignments and everything, I didn’t go to section today. I put everything aside to do this.”

While students were streaming into Willard Straight for the sit-in, four posters loomed in the entrance, each with one word of Cornell’s “any person, any study” motto.

The posters, Mahum said, were a way of reclaiming that phrase.

“I think probably the most damaging thing about Cornell promoting that image of diversity and inclusion is that they promote it so heavily,” Mahum said. “They often capitalize on the diversity of the student body, using faces of black students on financial aid applications. They promoted it so much that things like this seem like a myth, like it’s a one-time thing. This is not a one-time thing, this goes on all the time.”

Though the message was meant to be biting, Mahum — who does not study art, but said she does it more on her own initiative — also wanted to showcase it to acknowledge the depth that Cornell’s motto can hold.

“It’s sort of in a sarcastic way, but the last one, the one that with ‘study’ on it, it shows that you can still mock that message, but at its core value it is something that’s very important to this University, it is something that should be taken seriously,” she said. “That girl was imagining endless possibilities of her skin color not mattering with what she decides to pursue with her life. You can make fun of that, but also if you’re going to take these matters seriously we need to consider where we are and what our core values are.”

Mahum, though involved with social justice initiatives on campus, is not a member of Black Students United, the organization that hosted the rally. The initiative of making the posters, she said, was completely her own.

“When they came in, I was waiting for their reactions,” she said. “They were a little confused but then people were taking pictures of it. [The pieces were] doing the thing they were supposed to do.”

For the side-by-side “any person” posters — featuring a black student in a hoodie beside a blond skull in a suit — Mahum attempted to make a direct comparison.

“It’s sort of showing the very real fear that [people of color] have of white fraternities,” she said. “They don’t feel safe walking around this campus anymore. To a lot of white men walking around, they might feel personally offended and they might not see it that way, but it’s not about them. It’s about the image that has been perpetuated in the community based on the actions of the Psi U fraternity. So what are we going to do about it collectively?”

The black teenager beside it — with an intentional correspondence with “person” — was purposefully constructed with warmer colors and with X’s over the subject’s eyes, she said.

“It’s very bright to show the liveliness and the pride that especially black men have in themselves, but we still see them as an anonymous menace,” she said.

Not everyone embraced all of the posters, however. Later Wednesday evening, Mahum learned that one of her posters — in which a Cornell student is facing a bear, representative of Cornell, with speech bubbles including the swastika — was torn down.

When she approached those around the crumpled poster, Mahum said she discovered they were members of the Jewish community on campus.

“While I was initially upset at the damaged artwork because so much effort and passion went into them, I did not give enough thought to the hate symbol I used in my art, how it goes against the very message of banning hate speech on campus,” she said in a message to The Sun. “I did not give enough thought to other minorities on campus who do not have the ‘spotlight’ at this moment.”

“It was the Jewish New Year as well, so it simply exacerbated the offensiveness,” she continued. “I apologize to the Jewish community for using the symbol so carelessly.”

Mahum, who is also currently working with Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur and the Willard Straight staff on a mural, hopes to further the use of public art to open discourse on campus.

“I think that student art is severely lacking on campus,” she said. “Whether you’re in Willard Straight with Greco-Roman art that has no people of color in it and no color in it at all, or these paintings of old white men in all of the libraries, there’s no student art on campus.”

“Student art does deserve its place in social justice and politics.”

And her work suited just that purpose — just as she had hoped, the posters garnered a wealth of attention and discussion, as passersby took pictures and shared photos of her work during and after the rally.

“When people remember back to this event, they might remember the images they saw when they walked in,” she said. “People were stopping by and talking about them. That’s what matters.”