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Photo exhibit canceled for a second time at UNC-Chapel Hill's Stone Center. Here's why.

Tarred-Healing 1.JPG
Courtesy Cornell Watson
The Unsung Founders Memorial, a memorial to honor the free and enslaved Black people who built the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was surrounded by barricades several weeks after white supremacists gathered at the memorial and sat on it with Confederate flags.

The director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC Chapel Hill held a forum today to respond to the controversy over the cancellation of a photo exhibition by artist Cornell Watson.

Director Joseph Jordan explained why he is now canceling the photo exhibition for a second time in less than two weeks, this time at the artist’s request.

The exhibition "Tarred Healing" was originally set to open last week, but the center canceled it after the photo story published in the Washington Post.

That published story included photos Jordan did not want to include in the exhibition. He said he did not feel they fit the theme that Watson had agreed on when he accepted an offer to be a visiting artist at the center.

The three photos depicted demonstrations on campus supporting Nikole Hannah-Jones' fight for tenure.

“As the people who program and plan for this gallery … we have a right to say, ‘Well, that's not what the exhibition is about,’” Jordan said at the forum today.

Jordan has asserted that no University administrators had any part in decisions about which photos would be displayed, nor in the decision to cancel the exhibit.

Watson had agreed to remove those three photos from the originally planned exhibition after advocating to keep them in. Jordan said they had compromised and planned to display an image of the Unsung Founders Memorial that they had also disagreed on.

Jordan has explained he canceled the exhibition because: Watson had not informed the Stone Center that he had sent his photos to the Washington Post; the publication included all photos and the exhibition title “Tarred Healing,”; and the publication occurred before the exhibition was set to open.

“I am grateful and thankful for the opportunity to have work with the Stone Center on the exhibition,” Watson said in an interview this week. “But I should also say that I'm disappointed in how things ended.”

Efforts to display photo series locally

Earlier this week, Watson began conversations with members of the Chapel Hill Black community about how to display the full series either at a local venue or possibly on the university’s campus.

Danita Mason-Hogans was one person involved in those talks. Mason-Hogans is a Chapel Hill community member who has served on the university's History Race & A Way Forward Commission. Her family has generational ties to the school.

“These portraits and portraitures deal with local generational Black people,” said Mason-Hogans. “So it's very important that local generational Black people have a say in terms of how we want our communities and our stories to be represented.”

Mason-Hogans said that while there is a diversity of opinion in the Black community, she is in favor of displaying the full photo series, and had hoped Watson would be able to decide how his photo story is represented.

“For me, resistance is also part of Carolina's story. And so I find those photographs incredibly important, not only appropriate, but I think it’s an important part of the story that we have here,” Mason-Hogans said.

Jordan said he took the wishes of local people who had contributed to the photo series into account when he decided to reschedule the exhibition.

Last night, Jordan emailed Watson to say that the exhibition would be opening Friday evening.

Dear Cornell - I am writing to let you know that we will open the exhibition on this Friday at 5 pm. After a number of long conversations with folks from the community we feel it's important to honor their contribution to the project as we said we would. I am hoping you will join us so we can celebrate you at the same time as we will be celebrating the community. We'd be honored to have you.

Watson knew the rescheduled exhibition would not include his full photo series because the images Jordan had rejected from the exhibition were never printed.

Watson emailed university officials Thursday morning to ask that the center no longer use his images. He wrote that he found it concerning that the center planned to go forward with the exhibition of his work without his consent or an apology.

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