If you’re a fan of artistic freedom of expression, 2017 is not off to a good start. Yesterday, American University announced that it’s taking down a controversial statue by San Francisco-based artist Rigo 23, after the university allegedly received “credible threats to the statue and surrounding buildings” due to its political nature. But the artist thinks that the removal of his statue from campus is not only a breach of his contract with American University’s Katzen Arts Center, but “an act of censorship and a bending to the bullies.”
Rigo 23’s statue is of Leonard Peltier, a member of the Lakota tribe who, in 1977, was convicted of murdering two FBI agents. But the nature of his conviction raised many flags. Arrested shortly after the “Reign of Terror” period, which saw dozens of Native Americans murdered by private militia, many consider Peltier a symbol of law enforcement’s mistreatment of Native American people. He claims to be innocent and was sentenced to 71 years in a federal prison, but activists have been trying for years to win his freedom, going so far as asking President Barack Obama to release him as one of his last acts as Commander-in-Chief.
The statue, which was put up on Dec. 9, was set to be on display on campus until April, but American University announced its plans to remove the statue yesterday. Rigo 23 found out about the decision on Dec. 29 in a vague email from Jack Rasmussen, Director and Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. “I thought his email had been hacked,” the artist says. “I didn’t believe it, I thought Jack had been hacked. It was so informal.”
Two days later, Rigo 23 says he was cc’d in an email that explained the decision further, citing threats against the campus as reason for the decision. But he also says that he thinks the real reason American University decided to take the statue down wasn’t because of the threats, but because of a letter the university received from the FBI Agents Association asking that statue be taken down. The letter was delivered to the university on Dec. 29.
Rigo 23 believes that the university is bowing down to the FBI Agents Association’s request, not the vague threats that they mention in their press release. “The FBI Agents Association asked them to take it down because it was offensive to law enforcements,” he says. “I’ve asked them repeatedly what the nature of the threats were, who were making these threats, where they’re coming from. None of these questions have been answered.”
American University has not commented on the nature of the threats, but instead put out a statement that says “the decision to host the Peltier statue required a more thorough assessment of the implications of placing the piece in a prominent, public space outside the museum. With the benefit of a fuller review, we have made a decision to remove the piece from this location.”
In a follow-up email to City Paper, a spokesperson for American University explains that “objections were raised that made clear that the subject matter and placement of the piece improperly suggested that American University had assumed an advocacy position of clemency for Mr. Peltier, when no such institutional position has been taken. In addition, there were credible threats to the safety and security of the art, as well as the AU campus and community. Consequently, the university determined that the wisest course of action was to remove the statue.”
The university has offered to help Rigo 23 find a new place to display the statue—not on its campus—but the artist feels that what American University is doing is censoring art. “One thing that’s very sad about this whole affair is that the university is proceeding at a breakneck speed and they’re doing this behind the backs of their own students,” he says. (Currently, American University students are on winter break). “They’re violating first amendment rights.”