The intention behind the Union’s art project was to create a piece of work that would evolve over time, with students adding to and developing the art works in situ. It was intended to be a living and evolving installation. While we hadn’t foreseen its transformation happening quite so quickly, we are, nevertheless, happy that it has instigated an important conversation around liberation and the decolonisation of the curriculum. The Union’s officers’ actions to replace the original poem with Maya Angelou’s poem is not vandalism, it is breathing life into a project to make it truly student led.
Our officers stood out against the poem not in an attempt to obliterate Kipling from history but because, as an organisation, our values promote liberation first. Therefore, the first works created on the Union’s walls should be that of a liberation artist. Our officers chose the means they felt appropriate to make that point clear.
Not only have their actions highlighted the importance of student leadership inside our union and students’ unions around the country, they have advanced the conversation around the decolonisation of the curriculum on a national and global level and encouraged people to celebrate the voices of minority groups. The Union as an organisation (executive officers and its staff) is proud to have been the catalyst for that progress, supporting the national students’ campaign, ‘Liberate my Degree’.
However, the actions of our officers have also incited levels of racist abuse and criticism that are completely unacceptable. We are a learning organisation which believes in healthy debate and that no one should be subject to hate or abuse for expressing their feelings.
Whilst Kipling’s work was a product of his time there are lines in other works such as The White Mans’ Burden, “Your new-caught sullen people’s, half devil half child” that do not celebrate the beauty of all races. To expect people whose families have suffered the very real effects of colonialism not to have an emotional response in this situation is not reasonable. The effects of colonialism are still evident in India today. Our officers respect that fact on a personal level and feel they have a duty as officers of the Union to show they respect it in a professional capacity too.
The Union, including the officers involved in the discussion around this art project, would like to make it clear that we invite discussion around the issues raised by the art work over the last week but we will not engage with any approaches with suggestions of hate in any form.