When Judy Baca's intermediate art class decided to paint a mural at UC Irvine, students hoped it would provoke thought about social issues.
But what the artwork on a temporary construction fence sparked were complaints that the mural--which includes images of a nude woman in chains and Ku Klux Klan members--is sexist and racist, plus counter-complaints of censorship.
Since work began 2 weeks ago on the 50-foot-long, 8-foot-high mural near the new Physical Sciences Building and facing Aldrich Park, questions and complaints have rolled in to university officials. The dean of students has scheduled a campus forum next week to discuss the competing concerns of artistic freedom versus prejudice and sexism.
The image that has received the most attention is the depiction of a line of KKK members following their leader, a grand wizard. Next to them is a group of protesters, symbolizing minority groups who have been victimized by the Klan, said Baca, an assistant art professor. On the chest of the lead Klansman are the words "Hello My Name Is Ignorance."
Another scene some have criticized as offensive is the image of a nude woman chained to a house, which bears the words "Home Sweet Home." The chains are locked by a diamond wedding ring; over the woman's head is a key with the top portion in the form of an artist's palette.
"It shows the role art plays in our life," said Neda Pourang, a senior art student who painted the scene. "It symbolizes the threat of (women) being chained down by marriage, being a housewife, and the key to unlock the chain is art.
"Most women don't understand that they don't have to do that," Pourang said about traditional roles. "I painted her naked as a symbol of being defenseless and exposed."
Since the students began to outline the mural, Ron Wilson, assistant vice chancellor and campus ombudsman, said he has received 17 calls complaining about either the KKK members or the nude woman. That is the biggest reaction to a visual artwork in his 11 years on campus, he said.
"People have confronted this with an adversarial point of view," Wilson said. "Some people, about five or six, have called to complain, and they haven't even seen it yet. They have just heard about it. I had one lady call, and she said the depiction of a nude woman is a sin."
Most of the callers have criticized the KKK scene. Wilson said most of the critical callers were black students, and some Jewish students.
He theorized that people were reacting quickly to the mural because they have seen a growing number of incidents of racism and sexism across the country.
When one woman called, he said, and told him that "she had just heard about David Duke being elected to the Louisiana state Legislature and read about Richard M. Daley (who won the Democratic primary for mayor) in Chicago saying, 'You want a white mayor,' and 'now I see a picture of the Ku Klux Klan on campus. When is this crap going to stop?' "
"They're translating it (the mural) as, 'Now it (racism) is happening here,' " Wilson said.
He added that most of the complaints came before the words "Hello My Name Is Ignorance" were painted on the mural last week.
However, complaints have continued since then, with callers saying that the mural might be glorifying the KKK, he said.
As a result of the complaints, work started Thursday to design and distribute flyers to advertise an open forum at the mural at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
UCI's dean of students, Sally Peterson, said all students and faculty are invited to attend and to direct questions to the student artists.
Baca and her students, however, said they would not make any major changes but would consider altering the mural so their message is more clear.
She said some changes being discussed are enlarging the phrase "Hello My Name Is Ignorance," including a puppeteer who would be pulling the strings of the grand wizard and adding two figures in the Klan scene, a skinhead and a neo-Nazi, she said.
Baca said this would show that prejudice continues today.
She added that the controversy is proving educational for her students.
But both Baca and Wilson said they are concerned by a suggestion that temporary works such as the mural should win approval of a special committee before the work starts. That is seen by some faculty members and students as a form of potential censorship.
"There is discussion in that area," Wilson said. "We're talking about taking an elephant gun to a mouse. I'm urging that they move very carefully.
"When you talk about something like that, you are talking about the censorship of the creative mind. And the way I see it, once you open up the Pandora's box it's very hard to get it closed again."
Representatives of the Black Student Union and the Women's Resource Center could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Karen Bergman of the Jewish Student Union declined comment, saying she had not seen the mural. She did say, however, that her group would have a representative at Tuesday's forum.
Baca said the purpose of the project, which should be completed in 2 weeks, is to give her students a venue to display their work in public.
"No artwork is complete until someone has seen it," Baca said. "If someone's art is kept in the studio and seen by no one, then it is not complete."