To all returning students: take a walk through George Square and you might just notice something different. To all the new students who aren’t aware, in a moving gesture, the university has renamed its largest lecture hall, formerly the George Square Lecture Theatre, in honour of the late Gordon Aikman, an alumnus and campaigner for Motor Neurone Disease healthcare.
As part of this process, the building has been given a fresh coat of paint, removing the final vestiges of last year’s prolonged student occupation and making it look as pretty as a lecture hall can claim to be. An unfortunate victim of this renovation, however, is the mural created by student activists in 2017 bearing the message ‘Support Women of Colour’ alongside iconography and messages from civil rights activism. It’s a small gesture – without being told, it’s possible you’d remain oblivious, but if that’s the case, it’s possible that you, like me, are not a woman of colour who is trying to make their voice heard in the world of academia.
You might think: it’s just a mural, why should I care? It’s a view I can sympathise with. Surely a painting doesn’t really impact anyone that much, after all, and more importantly, the work put in by the university to make it an inclusive institution. To its credit (and in my own personal experience in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures) the university has made a conscious effort to diversify its courses and bring in academics specialising in feminist and black studies over recent years. Not to mention the designated student offices and representatives for female and BAME groups. But we should all care. Even on purely aesthetic terms, the painting was an effective example of art as a peaceful protest, a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise overwhelmingly grey campus. More vitally, it was a tangible symbol of the student-led communities available at this university that seek to nurture and support students of wide-ranging backgrounds in ways that existing academic systems might not. Especially for the underrepresented and often intersecting female and BAME populations.
All things considered, the issue here remains the conflicting message the university’s action conveys. If a mural is so harmless, why must it be removed? Taking down a piece of artwork that proclaims support for a frequently marginalised community would appear to be a blaring oversight against the wishes of said students. It’s unlikely that the painting was removed with any ill-intent – rather than malice, it was probably simple ignorance that is to blame. Yet that points to a stranger and more complicated problem: how can marginalised groups stake a claim to equality and the right to be heard when those in power can so effectively overlook their attempts to put their agenda into the wider academic community? That a symbolic depiction of the need for black female students’ to be supported can simply be taken down suggests an unwillingness to engage with the increasingly complex issues of race and gender on campus. Without throwing around terms like white privilege and patriarchy, it remains far easier for those less affected by issues of race and gender to simply shrug them off, thereby allowing them to remain ‘special interest’ topics, rather than problems the wider student community should address.
In removing the mural, the university has ironically, and quite literally, whitewashed its image. While a new paint job is benign enough, this action reveals a subconscious silencing of a too-often silenced group. An action made most egregious for the statements of support demanded by the artwork itself. You might not care about the painting – and that’s ok – but if the university is to celebrate education, that includes empathy with all subsets of the student population, and acknowledging the painful truths of how any one of us might perpetuate the exclusion of others. If its removal brings any benefits, let it be the beginning of a conversation about how our university engages with student activism.
Image: Paola Valentina