An embroidered work by surrealist artist Madison Smith, 25, displays the American flag with the message “white supremacy is in every stitch of our country.” Smith’s work consists of pastel, yet striking colors alongside ethereal renderings of flowers and moths with phrases like “let black girls be girls” and “let black women cry.”
Last spring, Fayetteville residents Cheanie Kü and Simone Cottrell commissioned Smith to create a work of art to be publicly displayed in downtown Fayetteville outside the World Treasures store, which Ku’s mother owns. Smith had full artistic liberty over the project, and said she chose to ask a question for locals to interact with. Smith created a sculpture featuring a mirror and wooden letters spelling out a question: “Do you value black people as much as you value black culture?”
Smith incorporated a mirror into her artwork for audiences to see their reflection as they think about their answer to her question, she said. She wanted to make a point that racism is prevalent not only in Fayetteville or Northwest Arkansas, but across the United States.
“I was a little bit afraid to have this piece out in public,” Smith said. “Because I was like ‘there could be someone who could destroy it.’”
On Feb. 12, someone attempted to rip the artwork from its stand and tear the sculpture’s leg supports from its concrete base. After those attempts failed, the vandal ripped off the artwork’s mirror, threw it on the ground and shattered it.
“I was just shocked,” Smith said. “I was a little bit angry. I mean, I expected it to happen, but for it to actually happen still did upset me. I think it’s just really upsetting that people are so hateful and that somebody would even do something like that.”
While Smith did not report the vandalism to the police, the Fayetteville Police Department investigates all public vandalisms, Sgt. Anthony Murphy of the Fayetteville Police Department said.
This is not the first time vandals have defaced local art promoting love and equality. Local artist Olivia Trimble was commissioned to cover up the spray-painted words “white pride” on a building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with “love unites us” in July 2020. On Sept. 15, the mural was vandalized to read “love weakens us” and “14 words” – a reference to the white supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
“Some folks still are embedded in this false, and it is false, notion about some of us are better than others,” said Yvette Murphy-Erby, vice chancellor for the University of Arkansas Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “That’s something that we grapple with, but if we’re really focused on moving forward as a campus, as a region, as a state, as a nation, that’s something that we have to work actively to move beyond.”
Addressing the vandalism of equality-based public art in Fayetteville, Murphy-Erby said there are still some people focused on division. However, based on her own knowledge and the literature of the field, Murphy-Erby said there is great value in diversity, equity and inclusion.
Hateful vandalism can have negative and hurtful effects on those who see it, as racial trauma from aggression can really send a message, Murphy-Erby said.
“For those that embrace and believe in this notion of love, justice and peace, while we continue to push forward, stuff (vandalism) like that, it sometimes can do what it was intended to do, which is to derail and to slow down,” Murphy-Erby said. “Understand that that is the intent (of the vandalism), and do not let the intent stop the progress.”
Murphy-Erby said the Northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville and UA communities would greatly benefit from moving forward with a focus on connection and collaboration.
“This notion of togetherness, collaboration, and unity, those are things that I think are powerful strategies in terms of our ability to move forward,” Murphy-Erby said.
On Feb. 13, Trimble’s mural was vandalized for the third time. The original message had been altered to read “unite us.” The side of the building now states “rebellion!”, with the back reading “your days are numbered.”
As of April 21, the vandalism on the front of Trimble’s mural is still visible.
Sgt. Murphy said the vandalisms of Smith’s art installation and Trimble’s mural are currently under investigation. Murphy declined to comment about the presence of police surveillance at the site of Trimble’s mural.
Smith plans on repairing her artwork with glue and will stick the broken mirror back on the piece. She said she wants to show people the racism present in Fayetteville.
“I did have the intention of it being an interactive piece and they interacted with it,” Smith said. “They destroyed it.”
As of April 21, Smith’s artwork has been removed from its original location and she is working on repairing. Even though the piece is destroyed, Smith said she wants to keep it as an example and that she has bigger plans for her artwork.
“Eventually, I want to have it in a museum one day,” Smith said. “I can show the first piece and the most recent version of it and show that in our country as a whole, this is what has happened to my art. This is anger, people.”