A walk by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism building reveals a new, albeit slightly hidden, addition to USC’s campus: a black and white mural depicting four young women of color framing the West lobby entrance and the words “DISMANTLE WHITENESS AND MISOGYNY ON THIS CAMPUS” written on the ceiling above it.
On March 22, the social impact-based art collective When Women Disrupt installed a piece commissioned by the USC Annenberg Institute for Diversity and Empowerment in collaboration with Visions and Voices.
Annenberg Institute for Diversity and Empowerment faculty co-director Alison Trope said that she, along with co-director Taj Frazier, wanted to create programming at the school that tackled issues of diversity in various forms. Trope had known about When Women Disrupt, an art collaborative, and reached out to the group to come to campus and create the mural.
“We talked to them about … actually creating some public art that could be displayed on campus that would also serve as a kind of cornerstone to see dialogue about diversity and to engage students more directly in this process,” Trope said. “So as we were planning, we talked to them about the fact that we didn’t want the messaging to come in a top-down way from them, that we wanted the messaging to come from our students.”
Trope said that they decided to invite representatives from When Women Disrupt to the communication class, “Designing Media and Communication Projects for Social Change,” as an open forum for the artists to discuss campus issues with students. The goal was for these discussions to inspire the installation and they opened up the conversation to other campus organizations.
Avra Juliani, a junior majoring in communication who was in the class, said that engaging in meaningful dialogue with the artists was particularly empowering for her.
“They based their artwork on some anxieties and concerns that students had in the classroom that we discussed, so I thought that was really meaningful to have an avenue for students to create public art on the university’s campus,” Juliani said.
Claire Porter, a senior majoring in communication who also participated in the class discussion, said she was particularly moved by the conversation because it was the result of open dialogue that she doesn’t believe occurs often at USC.
“This discussion we had in class was really able to uncover some problems that we have all been kind of repressing, which I thought was really powerful,” Porter said.
Trope said that while the piece might spark controversy, public art is often meant to be provocative and inspire conversation around polarizing topics.
“That controversy can be this foundation for further conversation, for further dialogue to really understand differences of opinion and how we can not program people to believe a certain thing but to really engage and further drill down on what these things mean,” Trope said.
Trope said that the controversial word for many is “whiteness,” because some people believe it to be synonymous with “white people.” However, when used in the context of critical theory, it connotes broader systems, not individual people.
“We’re talking about different lenses or frames we see the world through, when they say [whiteness], that is not directed at individual white people or individual males, it’s about a system, it’s about a culture, it’s about a climate,” Trope said.
Some students expressed that the art should have been installed in a more public area of campus for more people to see. Porter said she had forgotten about the installation and hadn’t noticed it until the class discussion about it the following week.
“It wasn’t disruptive enough in my environment,” Porter said. “It’s placed in a very hidden area of campus where it’s not usually seen and I think that speaks to the administration and how they want to frame and direct the conversation and the impact — the fact that it is inward-facing not outward facing — all of these factors are intentional from the administration and I think this project would have been much more powerful if the artists were given more freedom.”
The artwork was installed at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism because they were denied approval to install it on Watt Way at the last minute, Trope said.
“It’s not going to get the same kind of viewership that it would if it was on Watt Way,” she said. “It’s disappointing to me because I think it could have had a great impact on our community in terms of spurring dialogue and conversation about race and gender and campus climate.”