"That was censorship": UNC-Chapel Hill Stone Center cancels photo exhibition by Black artist Cornell Watson
The captions of the photos in this story are in Cornell Watson’s own words. This story includes an image that may be sensitive for some readers.
Photographer Cornell Watson remembers the excitement he felt this past summer when he was offered an artist residency at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC-Chapel Hill. He saw it as an important platform to represent Black stories.
But before he could open the exhibit on campus, the university asked for the removal of specific images, and then canceled his exhibition "Tarred Healing" altogether – less than a week before it was set to open.
Stone Center Director Joseph Jordan told Watson in an email the reason for the cancellation was because Watson had shared his photo series with the Washington Post, despite there being no written contract of ownership over the images.
Watson sees it as censorship.
"It felt like we were trying to make white people feel comfortable and our history is not comfortable," Watson said.
Jordan would not agree to an interview request, but in a statement emailed to WUNC he cited disagreements over content and scope with Watson that he described as "normal."
"But we were clear and insistent on focusing on the lives of people who were still here and still connected to sites of remembrance," Jordan wrote. "There were several, however, we felt ran totally counter to what we were trying to achieve and would detract from the theme, and indeed from the atmosphere of reverence and the sacred that we wanted to create for the families and individuals pictured in the show."
The photos Stone Center staff first asked Watson to remove from his exhibition included three documentary photos of student demonstrations at UNC-Chapel Hill protesting the university's treatment of Nikole Hannah-Jones. One of the photos also included a UNC-Chapel Hill administrator in the foreground. The fourth was a conceptual photo of the Unsung Founders Memorial on campus.
Stone Center sought Watson for his unapologetic work on Blackness
The Stone Center's staff initially sought out Watson to offer him an artist residency after he published a photo essay titled "Behind the Mask" in the Washington Post in 2020.
"Essentially it was about the way that Black people have to wear this veil and not be able to completely be their 100 percent selves, like their true authentic selves, out of fear of retribution from whiteness," Watson said, describing the photos essay that sparked interest from the Stone Center.
In an offer letter dated June 4, 2021, Jordan praised Watson's work and offered a $5,000 stipend for him to produce a photo exhibition centered on UNC's Black community.
Watson said the Stone Center staff encouraged him to do a photo series with documentary and conceptual photos, meaning some would be journalistic and others would be creatively composed. The Stone Center also provided a list of suggested sites on or near campus to represent.
That list included the Unsung Founders Memorial, the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood, the former site of the Silent Sam Confederate Monument and the site where James Cates was stabbed to death on campus by white supremacists in 1970.
“They wanted this to be seen and based around Black spaces, and around Chapel Hill and the University, and the goal was to be unapologetic,” Watson said.
Watson then worked for six months on the photo series, in communication with local Black families who are descended from people enslaved in Chapel Hill.
Watson said he first recognized tension over his images when he sent the Stone Center his first photo, a conceptual image of the Unsung Founders Memorial in the foreground of a silhouette of a man holding a noose.
The Unsung Founders Memorial honors Black enslaved people who built the University. Until protesters tore down the Silent Sam statue, the Confederate monument towered over the Unsung Founders Memorial across the lawn on McCorkle Place.
“My thinking about this image was reimagining Silent Sam of what it actually looked like for Black people when we looked at Silent Sam,” Watson said.
Watson was reminded of a Confederate statue in a predominantly Black community in his hometown of Weldon, in Halifax County.
“The thinking and the way we see Confederate statues – it was the equivalent of just like seeing a noose hanging from a tree,” Watson said.
Watson said he received pushback on this image multiple times from Stone Center staff. He began to question whether the Stone Center was respecting his creative license with this residency or treating it like a commission.
Being asked to ‘wear the mask’
Watson said after he received the Stone Center’s response to the first image, he did not send others until completing the series.
He represented many of the places the Stone Center staff had suggested in their list. In addition, he documented student demonstrations that took place during the course of his residency, which began in June and ended in December.
In the summer of 2021, the Black Student Movement held multiple demonstrations to speak out against the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees' decision not to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure application.
Watson was struck by the connections students made in their speeches to the spaces he was asked to photograph. They spoke about the lack of a memorial for Cates. They called out white visitors to campus who sat on the Unsung Founders Memorial without recognizing its significance.
Watson photographed two student demonstrations, including a heated meeting of the Board of Trustees in which the Board ultimately voted to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones. One of those images shows UNC-Chapel Hill’s Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Clayton Somers facing the camera.
Watson said Stone Center staff refused to display his photos of the student demonstrations. He said they gave him an ultimatum: remove those photos or cancel the show.
Watson said he was conflicted.
“Because it truly cuts at my values of being unapologetic,” Watson said, adding that the Stone Center had called him because of his work on "Behind the Mask." Instead, he felt he was being asked to wear the mask.
Ultimately, Watson chose to go forward with the show without the photos of students, because he wanted to pay respect to the local Black people who contributed to his work.
Delayed then canceled
The exhibition of "Tarred Healing" was originally set to open to the public at the Stone Center the third week of January, Watson said.
As the debate over which photos to include continued, the exhibition was delayed to late February. The date was then moved twice more. Watson said he was told this was due to scheduling conflicts.
In early January, Watson emailed the same Washington Post editor who had worked on his previous series to say he had a new photo series that would soon be exhibited at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Watson said it was his understanding that as the creator of the images, he retained full copyright and could share them publicly in other platforms.
“There have been no legal documents,” Watson said. “Why would I assume anything else?”
The Washington Post editor was eager to publish Watson’s images in a photography blog, and published them more quickly than Watson expected. With the exhibition delayed, the Post story ran one week before the show was set to open.
Assuming he had done nothing wrong, Watson shared the Washington Post story with a staff member at the Stone Center in an email last Friday.
Later that day, Director Joseph Jordan emailed back.
Hi Cornell: Sheriff just sent me a copy of the Washington Post article on what was supposed to be an exhibition of your work that we would open and debut here. Just writing to let you know we have decided not to mount the exhibition. Good luck with your future endeavors.
The photos were already framed and lined up on the floor of the Stone Center’s gallery, waiting only to be mounted to the wall.
Surprised, Watson said he let his emotions cool over the weekend and then sent a short email back asking for the reason the exhibition was canceled. He received this response:
Hi Cornell: if you check my original message it references the Post article. That article and its details run counter to our agreements about the exhibition and how it was to be presented to the public. We determined early on and at later stages how we’d present the show. As it has unfolded, it is clear our plans for the show were not considered. Under those conditions we are not comfortable mounting it here, particularly after it has been displayed, preemptively in a different form elsewhere.
Watson asserts he did not violate any agreement with the university, and acted within his standard rights as an artist. Typically, when he has exhibited at other galleries, the institution offers him paperwork to certify his copyright and ownership of the photos.
“Maybe there was like a lack of communication on their end or expectations about what they envisioned the residency would be, but from my perspective …there would be artistic freedom,” Watson said. "At the end of the day, I knew that those are my photos, it was my story that I created, I own those photos, I own that story. And I could tell the full story somewhere else."
When asked about his final feelings on the exhibition’s cancelation, Watson pointed back to the community he was asked to represent in his art.
“I think like the most important thing, right? Is this is about Black Chapel Hill. And honoring their history,” Watson said.
Watson hopes his photo series can be exhibited publicly in Chapel Hill soon, to engage audiences and inspire conversations about Black history at UNC-Chapel Hill.
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