The removal of “Silent Sam” demonstrates how symbols connect the present and the past. The monuments to White supremacy and their deep-rooted messages of racism remind us of ongoing racial inequities in our communities and on our campus. As a Confederate monument, “Silent Sam” revealed an ugly truth about our campus history: UNC is an institution whose founders enslaved human beings, whose later leaders practiced segregation, and whose recent legacy continued to allow a symbol of white supremacy to create an atmosphere of exclusion.
The statue’s removal also created an opportunity to move forward, using art to initiate open dialogue for a better future. The removal of Silent Sam is but one step in making UNC a safe, equitable and inclusive campus. The work of artists can help initiative dialogue for the sustained process of reckoning and reconciliation.
Silent Sam can be seen as a form of public art, but we propose that public art better represents our values when derived from a thoughtful collaborative process forged by diverse campus stakeholders. Design concepts from our artists teams raise awareness about important historical figures that represent future-oriented values, symbolize the many meanings of community and solidarity, and promote constructive action and an appreciation of difference.
In 2018, the Center for the Study of the American South called on UNC-Chapel Hill students, faculty, staff and alumni to offer their creative works, murals, sculpture, installation, documentary, performance art, or some combination. Following participation in two information sessions led by the project planning committee, teams and individuals submitted proposals.
Participation in this initiative was limited to UNC-CH students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Although these issues touch many people beyond UNC’s community, we chose to limit participation to those who live, work, and engage with this campus because we believe that UNC affiliates should have the most say in the future of our university.
Artists were selected by a committee of faculty, staff, and community members who gave funding preference to interdisciplinary teams that include both artists and non-artists. Grant funding was made available with the generous support of a private donor. The funds stipulated a series of collaborative meetings over the course of 18 months where teams set ground rules for engagement, shared their strategies and resources, influenced one another’s process and outcomes, and discussed struggles and successes.
By investing in one another as leaders and emphasizing dialogue over consensus, the artists created diverse public art projects and a shared vision for UNC that centered multi-generational community expertise, research, and creative problem-solving. We called this first phase of shared visioning “Imagining UNC’s Future with Art.” Artists in our Imagining UNC’s Future with Art Initiative envision a shared future.
We hope that the work created here is just the beginning. We believe that creating symbols, sharing visual ideas, and documenting experiences should accurately and thoughtfully reflect our campus’s truths and paradoxes.