When a shell is more than a shell

Sexually suggestive abstract photo sparks art censorship controversy at Sac State

“Bahamia Angel,” the image that started the controversy.

“Bahamia Angel,” the image that started the controversy.

Courtesy of Leisa Ann Faulkner Barnes

Correspondence will open April 5th at the Writing Center in Calaveras Hall at Sacramento State University.

For an 18-year-old, college can resemble an extension of high school. Adult authority figures call the shots, and deferring to their power is still very much conditioned into these kids after 12 years in the education system. Rebellion has not been encouraged, so protests and boycotts these days are rare.

But Leisa Ann Faulkner Barnes is not some deferential youngster.

A 47-year-old photography major at Sacramento State University, she has five sons, three of whom are in college. Barnes has been attending college off and on throughout her adult life, mixing her art with her education.

So it was a nice opportunity for Barnes when she was asked to use some of her photographic images for the Writing Center’s promotional material and art show. She submitted some of her best work, including a photograph of a seashell that she found on a beach during a vacation in the Bahamas.

“It’s quite dramatic and I think it’s beautiful,” said Barnes.

The problem is that some people thought that the photo—which she titled “Bahamia Angel”—looked like a vagina.

Barnes turned it in on Valentine’s Day in the late afternoon and the next day at eight o’clock in the morning, she received a phone call from the curator of the show, Sergio Saenz. He told Barnes that some members of the staff thought that her photographic image was too controversial, too sensual and they didn’t want to risk a controversy.

In the shell, they saw a vagina.

To be fair to those concerns, the image is more than just the original shell. Barnes sent her shell photo through a digital scanner, then enhanced and saturated the colors using the Photoshop program. The image is split and doubled and she moved each and every pixel in the dividing line so it would appear natural.

The light from the bed of the scanner reverberates in the image, which has a full range of translucent colors from yellow and peach to ruby-red hues. The silky texture and pearl-like transparency makes “Bahamia Angel” look like a living object. If it were a vagina, the part that would be the clitoris looks like a fleshy pink membrane.

English professor Cherryl Smith and supposedly several students at the Writing Center thought that the image was too sensual to appear on the posters and brochures and decided to look at other works of art, overriding Saenz’s decision.

Barnes was steamed, seeing the decision as a kind of puritanical censorship.

Through an overly complicated procedure of committees that colleges are so fond of, Barnes could not find out who exactly was offended by the image and was kept away from the people who made the decision. She was only told that “they” thought that it looked like a vagina.

“My intention when I was working on ‘Bahamia Angel,’ ” said Barnes, “was to make an outstanding piece of art. It did not occur to me that in some people’s minds that this abstract work of art would be construed that way. The image reminded me of an angel.”

As conciliation, Barnes was told that even though they were no longer going to use her image on the promotional material, she could have that image in the show. Barnes made it clear that if “Bahamia Angel” was censored, she had no interest in having her work in the exhibition. But this wouldn’t be a silent protest, and Barnes proceeded to contact the local media.

“This issue is so much more important than the image,” said Barnes.

Professor Smith, who works one day a week at the Writing Center and was involved with the show, tried to minimize the controversy. “There really isn’t any controversy or problem. It was a misunderstanding. But Leisa did call all the newspapers,” she said. “We did recognize that it looked like a vagina and that there might be people who would be concerned about that.”

Smith chuckled and chortled throughout the SN&R telephone interview with her. Approaching the incident like it wasn’t a big deal, she rambled nonstop like academics do when they are trying to get out of a sticky situation, trying to explain away the flap and prevent a story.

“We were choosing which piece of work might be the best for the poster, given who comes into the Writing Center,” Smith said. “The other papers didn’t think there was a story here.”

Smith pleaded ignorance about the entire incident of censoring, denying that she was involved in the decision, that there was a controversy, and that there was even a curator for the show.

“I have to say that that is not necessarily true,” Saenz said of Smith’s characterization. “She never really said to me that ‘no this is not fine,’ it was always through other people. I selected the work. I came up with the title. That’s what the curator does: selecting the work, putting it up and the publicity. To me what was really important was that the print was to be shown.”

Once the media started calling, nobody wanted to take responsibility for the decision. Eyebrows were raised and fingers started pointing at the invisible “they.” The misunderstanding became a hot potato.

“I got calls from the Bee and the student newspaper here saying that the chair of the English Department censored a painting of some kind and I didn’t know a damn thing about it,” said Mark Hennelly, chair of the English Department. “I brought everybody into the office and told them that I’m not going to tell them what to do, but my recommendation was that they try to clarify the lines of communications between English and Art.”

When asked what he thought of the image, Hennelly answered, “I certainly didn’t see anything that was inappropriate or resembling a vagina.”

Tired of the inaction, the finger pointing and the runaround, Barnes met with Professor Smith to discuss the matter. After a 45-minute meeting, Barnes achieved her original objective.

“She was telling me why she couldn’t do it,” said Barnes. “But by the end she said that she would. That’s how we left it.”

Will “Bahamia Angel” be on the promotional material? And will its masculine companion piece, “Rebirth,” be at the exhibition along with it? Unless there is another twist or turn to this saga—and this is academia, after all—the images are slated to be in the show and featured in promotional materials that come out next week.

Reflecting on shells and vaginas, Saenz dryly quoted Sigmund Freud, the father of sexual subtext: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”