A photography exhibit at the University Of Ottawa’s Café Nostalgica has turned into a debate about censorship of gay art and a game of peek-a-boo.
Ottawa photographer Morgan Baillargeon recently suffered censorship – although it has now been reversed – of his new exhibit at U Of O’s graduate student lounge, the Café Nostalgica. But he was the last person to know – and the last to expect café management to fold under pressure and renege on their anti-censorship position.
When Baillargeon came into the café to look at his recently installed exhibit, entitled “iMAN: Leather, Lounging… Lots Of Muscle,” he noticed that three photographs were missing. The manager had taken them down.
“I was just furious that they would take them down,” says Baillargeon. “There was no ‘You know, there’s a problem. Can you come in? We need to talk about it.’ He just took them down.”
One of the photographs depicts a nude man asleep on a bed, another a nude body builder. The third photo displays a man fully dressed in leather, grabbing his crotch and pointing at the viewer in a Michael Jackson-esque gesture.
“I could see if it was pornography,” explains Baillargeon. “If the [nude] guy had an erection, if he was touching himself and if the whole intention was to be pornographic.
“But it was not pornography. It was photographed as art and an incredible body.”
Baillargeon points out that the photo of the nude man lying on the bed also appeared in his first exhibit last summer at Café Nostalgica without any censoring.
“This was the same photo that had been up for seven weeks and was considered art in September. But now it is just disgusting nudity.”
Baillargeon immediately confronted Gabriel Coté, the café manager, who told him a customer had complained. The afternoon staff disagreed, however, when interviewed by Capital Xtra. Staff said they hadn’t heard any complaints. When Coté only agreed to put the photographs up again for an open house the next day, Baillargeon went to Shoshanah Jacobs, the president of the University Of Ottawa Graduate Students Association.
“The manager was trying to balance our funky style and pro-freedom of expression with the complaint that we did get for this second exhibit,” says Jacobs. “There was a specific mention about bringing kids into the restaurant.
“I didn’t want to put a warning on the front of the door, right?” says Jacobs. “But I didn’t feel like it was my responsibility to force parents to have conversations with their kids right then and there about what these photographs are about.”
Nostalgica is a graduate student café by day, a bar by night, and an art gallery at all points between. Baillargeon is perplexed that a graduate student association even considers it an issue whether professors or graduate students bring their children in.
“Kids come in during the day,” says Baillargeon. “So what? You think that kids the age of six or seven haven’t seen that yet?”
Jacobs also says the café should keep its clientele in mind when putting art on the walls.
“Obviously, it pisses me off that people get upset,” she says. “It [the exhibit] doesn’t bother me. But we do have people of Muslim faith in our community. We have to be sensitive to the fact that some people are not comfortable. So we tried to come up with the best arrangement.”
Coté, Jacobs and Baillargeon reached a compromise. They agreed to cover the nude portions of the photographs during the day with tiny Canadian maple leafs, using sticky tack, and to remove the maple leafs after 5pm.
“When I suggested that as opposed to taking them down completely,” recalls Baillargeon, “Shoshanah said, ‘Well, it looks like we’re censoring you.'”
“I said, ‘Well, you are censoring me!'” Baillargeon adds with a loud, indignant laugh.
He does, however, admit that Jacobs was extremely supportive, saying that she didn’t think there was anything wrong with the exhibit at all, but that she wasn’t the manager making the decision. He says they both jokingly agreed that they didn’t need to stick a maple leaf on the finger of the man fully dressed in leather and pointing at the viewer.
In another twist, the maple leafs came off after two days and didn’t go up again. Jacobs responded with a quick “No” to the question of whether there is any connection between their sudden absence and public pressure or Capital Xtra’s investigation into the story. When Capital Xtra arrived at Nostalgica to investigate, the targetted photographs were hidden well in the back left corner of the café, whereas most patrons were outside on the patio enjoying the Friday afternoon sun.
Despite many attempts to reach Coté, the manager of the café, he did not return calls. Staff members claimed he was always out.
Nonetheless, the maple leafs are gone.
“All of that seems to have fallen apart,” admits Jacobs. “Nobody seems to care anymore. I guess it was the first week that was the initial shock for some people. We haven’t received any complaints since that first day. I often wonder what reception photographs of naked women would have received.
“We’ve decided this is a young crowd. If there are kids there, we’ll worry about it again. I think it was just one instance – I don’t know – probably a lady and her kids or something.”
Baillargeon, who had heard rumours that the maple leafs didn’t stay up long, had yet to inspect the display himself at press time, since he was out of town on business. He does not think that any of the controversy has had to do with the obvious gay content of the exhibit.
“It was kind of obvious what it was about,” Baillargeon says with a chuckle.
“I still acknowledge that that is censorship and I’m not happy. But given the reality of ‘Take them all down and get out of here’ or ‘Put up the maple leaf and we’ll live with that,’ I would rather the maple leaf.
“If, in fact, they’re not bothering to put up the maple leaf, then somebody has rethought the situation and clearer minds have prevailed,” he says.