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Capilano University accused of censorship

Studio arts professor cries foul after effigy removed from view

A laid-off Capilano University studio arts professor is crying censorship after a piece of protest art he sculpted during the 2013 budget season that saw his and several other programs suspended has disappeared from campus.

Blathering on in Krisendom, an acrylic polymer statue depicting university president Kris Bulcroft and her poodle Margaux as ventriloquist dummies wearing an American flag and skull-and-crossbones gown had been on display in the studio arts department and at North Van galleries since May of last year.

When artist George Rammell went by the department last Wednesday, he saw that it had been removed.

"They got a hold of me months ago and. .. told me they had decided against any punitive action on the basis of my freedom of expression and now they've totally reversed that by attacking my work in the middle of the night, taking it away without even talking to me. It's censorship," Rammell said.

Rammell said the statue is in keeping with the long-protected tradition of political cartoons, which target those in power.

"There's nothing illegal about it, I didn't think. This is Canada. We're not in Iran or China. Political caricature is a very consistent tradition in the arts," he said. "All my teaching has been around questioning power structures. For 23 years, I've been teaching students to not let their art get used as a smokescreen and to look at the powers behind agendas you may not approve of."

The effigy's mouths are movable, allowing them to be used in puppet shows. The American flag draping it represents Bulcroft's nationality. The skull and crossbones gown is a metaphor for dead programs, faculty losing their livelihoods and students who won't be there in the future, Rammell said. Dogs, in artistic tradition, represent a knowing spirit that can speak the truth when everyone else has lost sight of it, Rammell added.

At issue for Rammell is the way his and several other courses were cut by the university during a $1.3-million budget shortfall in 2013. A recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling found the administration was in violation of the University Act when it suspended the programs because the board of governors had failed to develop a policy on the discontinuation of programs in consultation with the university senate, which includes 10 faculty members.

Board of governors chairwoman Jane Shackell released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying her decision to order the statue removed was not arrived at lightly.

"Our university is committed to the open and vigorous discourse that is essential in an academic community, the inherent value of artistic expression, and the rights to free speech and protest that all Canadians enjoy. No one wants Capilano to be a place where art is arbitrarily removed or censored," her statement read. "We must also be mindful of the university's obligations to cultivate and protect a respectful workplace in which personal harassment and bullying are prohibited... I am satisfied that recently the sculpture has been used in a manner amounting to workplace harassment of an individual employee, intended to belittle and humiliate the president. This led me, as board chair, to take action."

Shackell said administrators have offered to give the statue back on the condition that he not display it on campus again. That still amounts to censorship, Rammell maintains.

While the debacle is not yet resolved and the university heads into its 2014 budget, Rammell said he's found inspiration to continue making effigies as art.

"I haven't done portraiture for 30 years and this sort of revived it for me. I'm planning to do another piece. I'm planning to do Stephen Harper's portrait and I want to cast it in solid bullshit. I actually have the bullshit in buckets already," he said.