The Newcastle University Feminist Society (FemSoc) was involved in controversy last Wednesday when some of the posters they were selling to raise funds for the West End Refugee Service were censored by library staff at the Phillip Robinson Library.
The artworks in question were created by Newcastle student Louise Brown and depict cartooned images of female nudity, which library staff told the society to cover up as it might ‘shock and surprise students’ coming to study. In response to this censorship FemSoc responded by covering the posters with signs that said ‘censored by Newcastle University’, which further aggravated staff who told the students to put the posters away and ask for ‘student’s consent’ to look at them.
The stall was located in the foyer of the Phillip Robinson Library and sold posters, postcards, stickers and t-shirts with feminist slogans and illustrations on them similar to the posters that were specifically targeted. All the artwork sold was created by Newcastle students; Becky Tuck, Tamsin Daisy Rees and Louise Brown. All proceeds of the event were donated to the West End Refugee service and the girls asked for donations of menstrual products they could donate also.
Louise Brown whose work was deemed controversial commented on the counter productivity of censorship of this nature; “My art is directly made to counter sexist attitudes towards women and their bodies. Female bodies are not inherently sexual. The female form is not offensive. While attempting to minimise offence, the censorship of my art and the female form only works to perpetuate the patriarchy. This response to my art highlights its importance in challenging dominant sexist discourse.”
Further justifications by staff present were that ‘the other library staff might not know how to react’ to the nudity and that a trip of school children would be walking through the library during FemSoc’s presence there.
A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “We encourage a range of artwork on campus and are committed to creating spaces for art and performance that celebrates diversity.”
“Unfortunately, on this occasion we were approached by FemSoc at the last minute asking for help in providing a space in the Robinson Library for their stall as the strong winds meant they could not display in the open air outside the Students’ Union. It was only after they set up we decided it was not appropriate as a group of 8 and 9 year old school children were visiting the library. With more time and discussion in advance we could have happily accommodated them.” They did not comment however on concerns voiced to FemSoc by individual library staff.
The Feminist Society expressed their dismay over social media and were in contact with Activities Officer Sophie McDermott, who commented, “The University should not be avoiding important conversations such as the issues surrounding the female form in artwork. I was very disappointed with their reaction and hope to work with them in the future to avoid this happening again” Overall the students found it difficult to speak with library staff about the issue, out of fear that they would be asked to move altogether from the library, social secretary Sian Dickie of the society noted that there was an atmosphere of lack of support from staff, which surprised members who thought the university setting would encourage intellectual and creative freedoms.
Becky Tuck president of the Newcastle University Feminist Society said finally,
“This censorship was a sad reminder of why artwork like Louise’s and societies like ours are still so necessary. This isn’t about one piece of amazing artwork, or one act of censorship – this is much bigger. This is about resisting a culture that imposes a sexuality onto women’s bodies that is not their own, a culture that creates dress codes for school girls implying inappropriate and “distracting” sexuality in their teenage bodies, a culture that blames women who are assaulted for their choices of outfit, a culture that sees women as sex objects and nothing more. And we shall continue breaking down the patriarchy one non-sexualised naked cartoon Lady at a time!”
“Despite the censorship the event was a huge success. Louise’s work was being sold alongside two others’, to raise money for menstrual products for local refugee women through the West End Refugee service – for which we raised over £300.”