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Body positive art exhibit censored for female nudity

Photos by Kirstin Harsma

Photos by Kirstin Harsma

When Kristin Harsma opened “Beauty in Every BODY” at the beginning of February, she wanted to use art to send a positive message about body image.

She had pitched the show a year ago to Artspace Jackson Flats, the live/work art building where she lives. But when a fellow resident took issue with the nudity in some of the pieces, Artspace, the nonprofit that owns the building, asked Harsma to alter her show.

Harsma says that's censorship. In light of a complaint, two of the works depicting nude women are still hanging in public view, though with body parts obscured by a paper marked "Censored."

The exhibition features a collection of works all centered around self-image, gender and sexuality. “The show is supposed to be a call for positive change,” Harsma says. “None of the work was vulgar. It wasn’t offensive.” She had pitched the show a year ago, and it was put on the schedule for February, to coincide with Valentine’s Day. “The show is about accepting people loving people for who they are no matter what their background is,” she says.

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The show features 30 artists, some of whom don’t live in the building. Participating artists either helped hang pieces or contributed a small fee to help cover the cost of hardware and other expenses.

Problems arose after the opening on February 2, right before performances were about to start. “There was someone getting body painted — she had underwear and pasties on,” Harsma says. “That kind of triggered the conversation.”

A woman who lives in the building thought the model was nude. “That person posted on Facebook in our private Artspace residency page. That’s where it kind of turned into a bunch of rude discussion back and forth.”

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Harsma says the woman, who is white, said she was speaking for members of the Somali community who reside in the Jackson Flats.

The woman who complained is herself a curator, according to Harsma. In fact, every unit in the building must have one artist living there. Each artist resident must pass a selection committee, according to Tio Aiken, the Artspace's communications manager. Artspace’s website states the committee’s purpose is “to determine [a potential resident’s] level of commitment to the arts, community and their art form.”

On Monday, residents of both sides of the issue had a meeting with the building’s manager, Greg Foley, to discuss the controversy. Then on Tuesday, “they told me that the work would need to be dealt with,” Harsma says.

As an appeasement measure, Harsma covered up the body parts that weren’t approved with paper. “Then I came home and found someone had covered more and taped directly to the canvas,” she says. “For someone else to be messing with the work on a show that they are not a part of, puts the artwork at risk and me at risk.”

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By Wednesday, Harsma was told she needed to take all of the nude art out of the small gallery, which some residents need to walk through to get to their homes, and into a larger gallery space that is secluded.

“There are two exhibition spaces at Jackson Flats,” Foley says. One is a tenant lobby in the elevator area. “Artists are asked to keep sensitive-themed works out of that room,” he says. “The other room, the larger room, is a community space with a separate entrance. It’s understood by the tenants to display edgier art.”

When asked if there was a written policy about the delineation of the two galleries, Foley said it was communicated via email and at tenant meetings.

“There are two spaces and two distinct uses,” says Aiken. “I’m not as close to the ground where exhibition space happened, but there probably needs to be a formal clarification about the policy.”

According to Harsma, she understood the rule to be that nothing offensive could be put in the tenant lobby gallery. “It hasn’t ever been clear about what is offensive,” she says. “My perspective is that nude art isn’t offensive, as long as it isn’t triggering. I didn’t think it was an issue to put it in that gallery.”

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According to Foley, the shows are chosen by "a committee of artists" from the building, who curate proposals and set an exhibition calendar. “We try to let the community of residents at each building have the curatorial discretion to do their shows… The people who put together the show, as well as the exhibition committee, all know what is supposed to be in each gallery.”

Foley says Artspace offered Harsma a variety of options to ameliorate the situation. “The art could be switched around, so the inoffensive art could be in the lobby, or move all of the art into the separate community space,” he says. “She wasn’t asked to take the art down immediately.”

But Harsma says the cost and time of completely rehanging the show is overly burdensome, not to mention it disrupts her original vision.

This Sunday, she will hold open hours displaying the work as she intended. After that, the art will need to be moved around, with all pieces featuring nudity hung in the secluded room for the last set of open hours on the last Sunday in February.

“It’s going to be segregated to a nudity room and a non-nudity room,” she says. “I feel that it changes the overall theme of the show. It’s contradictory. It’s contradicting the original intent of the show. Really, we all have bodies and we should not feel offended by them.”

“Beauty in Every Body”
11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sunday
Artspace Jackson Flats
901 18 1/2 Ave. NE, Minneapolis