In an exhibit of 100 portraits at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham are blank spaces where two small canvases used to be.
On Oct. 5, school officials removed one portrait and the text that accompanied it: an image of a young woman with her middle finger up in front of a hotel with a Trump sign, as well as a canvas that featured her words.
“Me walking around DC last week,” the text says. “I noticed Trump is opening a new hotel here and I had to do this. Talking down on Latinos especially my people of Mexico.”
Head of School Catherine Hall called the decision to remove the works a “tough judgment call.” But Puerto Rican artist Nayda A. Cuevas, artist-in-residence at the private school, called it “censorship.”
The exhibition, created by Cuevas and called “FluidIdentity,” has several sections with different bodies of work. Each piece explores her Latinx identity through the lenses of motherhood, family history, stereotypes, and the complex relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
The woman in the canvas is not Cuevas. It is one of a series of portraits Cuevas painted of subjects she found on the Internet. All are women who had posted selfies on a blog called “Reclaiming the #Latina tag” as a way to combat hypersexualized portrayals in media.
On Tuesday, at the school’s morning assembly, Hall and Cuevas were slated to speak to Noble students about the painting and the controversy surrounding it. Throughout the day, the school will encourage students to discuss the issues and to engage with Cuevas and her art, Hall said.
“[I want the students] to be empathetic to different views,” the artist said, “to be able to listen to others’ stories because these stories are real.”
The “FluidIdentity” exhibit ends Wednesday.
Cuevas came to Boston a decade ago but grew up in Deltona, Fla., after moving from Puerto Rico with her family. They were the only Puerto Ricans in their community for miles. She remembers being told to speak English at a grocery store. Those experiences influence her art.
For the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, she created a two-day display in the school’s Foster Gallery called “In Darkness,” where the lights were dimmed and the space filled with sounds from the island in the aftermath of the Category 4 storm, including roaring wind, generators, and small frogs called coqui.
She said students have been receptive of her work throughout her residency.
“Students approached me and said that they felt finally validated on campus,” Cuevas said, “that their voice was present now and they were excited a Puerto Rican or a Latina was showing work in their school.”
Hall said if the painting had been of the subject giving two thumbs down, they would have left it up, but it was the vulgar gesture that was the real issue for those students who complained, she said.
“Some were offended for political reasons and feeling that it set a culture of silence and made it feel less safe to speak up with different views,” Hall said. “Most of what I heard was that the profanity was disrespectful to the climate and culture we’re trying to build.”
In the end, the decision to remove the work wasn’t about politics, Hall said. It was simply about a level of profanity that didn’t align with their community norms.
“In the larger art world, we certainly understand that this kind of art has a wonderful place, but in a seventh through 12th grade school we have to be judicious at times,” Hall said. “But we’re finding that actually this alone serves as an opportunity for further conversation.”
Cuevas is working on larger portraits of Latina role models. She’s creating selfie mosaics of their faces with Photoshop, which she transfers onto canvas and paints over.
“Her intention is always to create dialogue,” said Cathleen Daley, codirector of Room 83 Spring, a Watertown gallery where Cuevas first created the “Reclaiming the #Latina tag” series in 2016. “She’s grounded in her own self-assured way and willing to talk about what it means to be a young Latina.”
Hall said she hopes that the schoolwide discussion will enable students to see healthy role models of adults engaged in important conversations.
“I hope their own assumptions or thinking at some point in the day get challenged,” she said.
Cuevas hopes students see the importance of art as activism.
“I feel that my role has always been to create awareness of ‘otherness,’ ” Cuevas said. “I always felt, even as a young person, if I could just make others see that we’re just human beings and that I come from a beautiful place and the Latino people are beautiful people that we’d be a much happier society.”
Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.