New Art Sparks Controversy Amongst the Student Body


Ali Levy, Editor-In-Chief

Over the past few weeks, many art pieces have popped up on the walls all over the school, but one has sparked heated discussions amongst the student body. Head of School Bo Lauder has dedicated much of his time trying to fill the walls with art depicting people of color after a student approached him and pointed out the lack of artwork depicting and created by people of color. Lauder explained how that student made him realize the impact that art had on current and prospective students. “When prospective families of color come to visit Friends, having art depicting people of color or created by artists of color really makes an impact.

In order to do this, Lauder began donating his own art that was created by people of color, and bought some pieces for the school as well. “I tried to represent as many different races, genders, and geographies as possible,” Lauder said. “As students and prospective students walk the halls they can enjoy the art and see art by other people, other races, and see the richness of the combination.”

One piece of art that has sparked conversation was a large neon-colored depiction of a tablet of ecstasy with former president Barack Obama’s face on it that circulated in 2009. The piece was created by the artist Beverly Fishman, who in recent years has explored the effects of drugs and pharmaceuticals on society. Fishman spoke on why she created this piece, saying, “I made the Obama pill to remind us how powerful his image was back then: the embodiment of hope and cool and an inspiration to youth and progressives. So, the pill was a celebration of Obama, but it was also a reminder of how our culture uses our heroes to target us and sell harmful products.”

Lauder was immediately struck by this piece when he first saw it. “I thought it was a great piece. I loved that it was sculptural and not a painting or a drawing.” He initially worried that he would not be able to purchase it, but explains how he eventually appealed to a group of parents involved in the art world who came up with the money.

The artwork was placed above the stairs leading up to the fifth floor, but after a few students voiced their concerns that the art portrayed Obama as a caricature, the piece was taken down and placed in Lauder’s office for students to look at if they wished. Lauder spoke to the artist about these concerns, who said that she was horrified that people would think it was a caricature of Obama, or Obama in blackface, because this was not her intention.  

Amirah Thomas ‘23 reflected on the artwork and why she thinks students did not understand the message it was trying to convey. “It’s not the best interpretation of Barack Obama, and I don’t think students even recognized who it was at first, nor understood its meaning.” 

Thomas, the leader of Black Culture Club at Friends, mentioned that her club had a meeting after the art went up to discuss their opinions. “Many people just thought it was weird and did not get it. There was also a shared opinion that schools are not supposed to be polarizing and showcase political figures on the walls, especially a Quaker school where we are supposed to accept everyone’s different beliefs.” 

Lauder was made aware of this concern, but explained why he did not think that this was a problem. “I personally think Obama earned the honor by being the first Black person elected president of the US. I reject the notion that his getting special treatment is wrong. He is a historical figure in a multitude of ways.” 

Lauder reflects on the experience, and what he could have done differently. “I think my mistake was not giving a talk that I had intended to give about the art in general before it went up. I should have also placed a wall statement next to it to give context and identify the art, as I understand it can be jarring without any information.” Since then, Lauder has placed a wall statement next to the piece in his office, which gives context as to the artist’s intention.

Thomas also shared what artwork she thinks should be on display. “I think that as a school, we should celebrate student voices and student art, and we have so many talented kids, so I think the school should give them a platform to give their voice and opinion and their artwork. The whole Obama piece blowing up detracted from student artwork.”

Despite the controversy, Lauder pointed out some benefits to this ongoing discussion. “It inspired a spirited debate, and that’s what should happen in a school. There should be different opinions and we should discuss them.” So while this piece might have been controversial, it did spark a crucial conversation about what should decorate the walls of Friends Seminary, and could potentially initiate change to reflect the wishes of the student body.