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UCLA art controversy: censorship or "curatorial process"?

October 19, 2008 | 11:00 am

Maya_lujan_artwork_3

The exhibition may be over, but Los Angeles artist Maya Lujan is still seething.

Lujan, 34, participated in UCLA's 2008 Wight Biennial exhibition, titled "Group Effort: Collaboration as Process and Form," which opened Sept. 25 and closed Oct. 9 at the New Wight Gallery at UCLA's Broad Art Center.

Lujan's large scale artwork "White Magic and Xanadu," appeared in the show -- but not the way the artist had in mind.

The symbol on the wall (at far right) was installed Sept. 23 along with the sculptural pieces, but was removed before the show opened -- according to the artist, without her permission.

"It's just sort of unheard of for them to handle it without the artist's permission," she said.

Lujan proposed the work with another artist, Kristin Botshekan, but Botsekan dropped out before the exhibition.

Although the student curators did not provide Culture Monster with their reasons for taking down the symbol, which Lujan calls a "mandala," Russell Ferguson, chairman of the UCLA art department, confirmed that the decision probably had something to do with the fact that the form resembles a swastika.

Webster's defines a mandala as a "Hindu or Buddhist symbol of the universe," usually depicted as a circle enclosing a square.  Lujan says the word can encompass any form with an inner shape, in this case the small square of bare wall enclosed by four arms. The form, she says,  "carries the association of aiding the viewer into a trancelike state."  She says that among the differences between her form and a Nazi swastika is that hers is oriented at a different angle.

In a Sept. 24 e-mail to Lujan, Alex Segade, one of the show's curators, wrote that all four curators "love your installation" but were "wondering if the wall mandala is absolutely necessary and if you would be open to taking it down? We've received a lot of questions about it and I am afraid it is being misread by the public."

Lujan asked for "a more detailed explanation" and added: "If you can give me a very strong and honest reason to remove it, I might consider it." Instead, Lujan says the curators removed the form, constructed of pieces of velvet, without waiting for her OK.

Ferguson left the decision up to the curators and said their choice should not to invoke the  "serious charge" of censorship. "Obviously the artist is upset about it; on the other hand, it seems to me within the norms of the curatorial process," he said earlier this week. 

Added Ferguson, "Nobody is accusing her of putting up some neo-Nazi symbol; on the other hand, it was not a kind of low-key thing." He said curators were misled by the fact that in her proposal Lujan described this part of the work as a "velvet painting" and that the proposal materials did not make clear what the finished installation would look like or "it would have been dealt with before."

The curators -- Segade, Matthias Merkel Hess, Jennifer Gradecki and Wu Ingrid Tsang -- said via e-mail Thursday: "Regarding the project Maya Lujan and Kristin Botshekan proposed, we decided not to include the wall piece because it was not in the spirit of the show we wanted to present...." No reference was made to swastikas.

Lujan believes that a study she provided along with her written proposal did indeed suggest the intended shape of the form. Said Lujan: "What I would ideally like is another opportunity to show in the gallery, and I would like another opportunity to show my work intact and unedited. I just felt the whole time it was up it was not what I intended."

-- Diane Haithman

Photo caption: Maya Lujan's "White Magic and Xanadu" as it would have looked before the "mandala" --an image that some perceived as being a little too close to a Nazi swastika -- was removed. The photo, by Ben Duggan, was shot Oct. 3, while the show was still open: "I put it [the mandala] back up for the shoot. I kind of had to sneak in there and do it. We got the shots and left," Lujan said in an e-mail.

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