When Bakersfield College art professor Ruth Santee was asked to display some of her artwork at an exhibit located in downtown San Mateo’s transit center, she was not expecting to be asked to take it down roughly a week after the display went up.
“I received a call from longtime friend and curator for this exhibit, Sinem Banna, to come up with some drawings,” began Santee.
What she ended up showing were four pieces that she had already done, and two new ones, one titled “East” and the other “West.” They were to be seen in cultural terms, with “East” being very influenced by Asian culture and “West” representing American culture and consumerism.
The pieces, “West” in particular, had rats, figures of small naked people, which some had construed as children, and scenes like a flea being ridden by a rat in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Santee’s objective with the naked figures was not intended to make them appear obscene, but merely used as a way to strip them and, thus, put them on a more equal level with one another.
The next call that would alter Santee’s perception of censorship and the arts came from Banna, again, but this time saying she received a call from the city attorney and that they had received complaints about the display and wanted it taken down.
“Most people react to Ruth’s work by seeing the humor in it,” said Cameron Brian, a BC adjunct professor and Santee’s husband, who also had work displayed at the exhibit.
“I have not known many people to be offended by Ruth’s work,” Brian continued. “They are usually amused. My work, Sinem’s work, and Ruth’s work looked great in those windows [at the transit center] and it was our understanding that the work would stay up until the end of September. Apparently, within a week, someone was offended.”
Both Santee and Brian admitted that they were surprised that Santee’s work was under such scrutiny when Banna’s work involved images of dead Iraqi children who were literally “blown up from U.S. bombs,” according to Santee.
After Banna, Santee, and Brian had weighed their options and the possible consequences, they decided to leave the display up.
“We never expected events to unfold the way that they did,” Brian said.
“I know that Ruth made the correct decision. She protested this action. I am very proud of her and Sinem Banna, who lost her position as a result.”
Banna was then San Mateo’s City Art’s Director prior to the transit center exhibit and, according to Santee, they had “trusted her judgment for three years.”
About an hour after that call, Banna called Santee, again, informing her that she had received an e-mail from the city of San Mateo firing her as Art Director.
The next step that Santee and Banna took in fighting censorship was contacting the California Lawyers for the Arts (C.L.A.).
After speaking with Santee and Banna and contacting the city of San Mateo, the C.L.A. determined that the women were dealing with two issues: censorship and the loss of Banna’s job.
As part of lashing back against both issues, the two women contacted the media and were featured in newspaper articles and were also interviewed on a radio station.
The end result, thus far, has been the refusal to take the work down on the artists’ part, and the city allowing the exhibit to show until September. After that, the space will be used for advertising.
All three artists have shown dismay at this decision, because, as Brian phrased it, “there are fewer and fewer public venues for artists and just more advertising everywhere.”
Brian also asserts that neither he nor Banna nor Santee were trying to illicit a reaction from anyone.
“I believe that we were all just being true to the imagery that we were interested in showing,” he continued. “This was a unique case because the so-called offense was so subjective that it left everyone wondering what someone could have found to complain about.”
“I would definitely do it again,” Santee said. “I strongly believe in freedom, and believe that if you give up rights, even unintentionally, then things are taken away from us before we know it. You have to be watchful and on guard.”