Artist disappointed by University's removal of statue
The statue’s subject is in jail for murder, but activists say he had an unfair trial
The artist behind the nine-foot-tall statue of Native American activist and convicted criminal Leonard Peltier said he feels the University’s decision to remove the work from the Katzen Arts Center’s lawn is an affront to freedom of expression.
AU unexpectedly removed the piece, by Ricardo Gouveia or “Rigo 23” from Katzen Arts Center Lawn on Jan. 3 in response to a letter from the FBI Agents Association (FBIAA). The statue was scheduled to remain on display until April 2017.
Rigo said he was notified of AU’s intent to remove the statue in a “very brief email,” with the subject line “Uh-oh” on Dec. 29 from the director of the Katzen Art Museum Jack Rasmussen.
“At first I thought it was a prank,” Rigo said. “I thought that the Katzen Arts Center’s Director’s email account had been hacked.”
President of the FBIAA, Thomas O’Connor, sent AU President Neil Kerwin a letter calling for the statue’s removal on Dec. 29. O’Connor argued that by displaying the artwork, AU was “disseminating misleading propaganda from activists supporting Peltier.” The statue - in its size and prominent location - insulted the FBIAA, he said.
“The message being sent by AU to FBI Special Agents and their families, past and present, and to all members of the law enforcement community, is both clear and troubling,” wrote O’Connor in the letter. “AU has decided to advance the political arguments of activists with little concern for providing all of the facts or considering the views of law enforcement.”
Leonard Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement accused of the 1975 murder of two FBI agents on a reservation in South Dakota, said Peter Clark, former co-director of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Peltier was one of 40 people involved in the alleged shoot-out. He remains imprisoned serving two consecutive life sentences and, at 71 years old, he is in poor health, without access to adequate medical treatment, Clark said.
The case was treated improperly by the FBI in 1975, Clark said. Peltier has always maintained his innocence.
Rigo is considering taking legal action against the University, he said.
“American University raced to extinguish this expression at this critical moment when people of consciences are coming together,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Rigo’s attorney, said. “The University abandoned any pretense of academic integrity.”
The statue has been relocated to a “safe location,” and, according to the agreement, the University is “treating it with the same care it provides to its own works of art,” American University said in a statement released Jan. 1. Rigo himself does not know where the statue is currently located, he told The Eagle.
Before leaving office, former President Barack Obama denied Peltier’s clemency. Obama’s final week was the “optimal time” for Peltier to be freed, Clark said.
“Obama had a good reputation with the Native American community and he blew it,” Clark said. “It would’ve been a huge opportunity towards reconciliation with the Native American people.”
Peltier’s next parole hearing is scheduled for 2024.
“I pray Leonard will stay alive until then,” Clark said.
The statue elicited controversy in the community after its unveiling on Dec. 9. Some AU students were pleased to arrive for the spring semester to find it had vanished.
“I’m all for freedom of expression on all sides, but to me, it was viscerally anti-cop,” School of Public Affairs junior Robbie Rosamelia said. “It’s a special case that makes display improper.”
AU does not have an institutional position on Peltier’s case and the statue intended only to incite discussion, according to the statement. Its removal was a response to a threat to the security of students and members of the community.
“Artistic freedom is a central tenet of the American higher education experience and the university’s support of those ideals remains unchanged,” the University said in a statement.