Trump severed head painting at UAA sparks debate

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Editors note: Some readers may view the image of the painting mentioned in this story as graphic or disturbing. Click here to view the painting.

A painting on display at a University of Alaska Anchorage art gallery which depicts the severed head of President Donald Trump, is sparking debate about free speech rights and whether the image is appropriate for display at a public institution.

The artwork, created by Assistant Professor of Painting Thomas Chung, is part of a faculty art exhibition at the UAA Fine Arts building.

In describing his painting, Chung said, "It's an image of the actor who plays Captain America, and two eagles are sort of screaming into his ears, and he's holding the severed head of Trump, and there's a young Hillary Clinton clinging to his leg. I was reminded of those 80's rock posters, where there's a woman in tattered clothes clinging to a strong male hero's leg."

Chung says the motivation for the painting was his dismay over the results of the presidential election.

"After Trump was elected, I spent days just weeping. And it was really surprising because I'm not a political person," Chung said. "I am a social artist. I deal mostly in ideals of culture and global culture but this election bled into that."

The painting has prompted debate on social media and complaints to the university.

Paul Berger, a former adjunct professor at UAA, went to see the painting after a family member saw it on display. Berger posted pictures of the painting on his Facebook page.

"The painting itself, I kind of found disturbing," Berger said. "The image itself was very graphic. So from that point of view, and as a father, trying to explain to my children what the artist is trying to say ... [it's] difficult."

Berger said he supports free speech, but questions whether it's appropriate for display at a publicly-funded institution.

"Had the roles been reversed, and it was Obama's head hanging there, I think the outrage would be fantastic," Berger said. "As a free speech advocate, everyone has a right to express their opinion the way they want to express them. But as a parent and a citizen, there's a discussion. In a university setting, what's appropriate?"

Chung said he had reservations about putting his painting on display at UAA because of its political message.

"I was really torn about putting this piece up a faculty show, because I would never talk about my own political beliefs to my students," Chung said. "I would never push that upon them and make them feel uncomfortable, and so I wondered to myself if putting up this painting was in a way doing that. But I realized that I feel very strongly about this, and I think even students that might be pro-Trump supporters could benefit from having a conversation with me about why I feel this way, why I painted this."

Berger, who describes himself as a political conservative, questions whether a painting depicting the decapitation of the president will help civil discourse about politics.

"Prior to the election, it was important to the opposing side that we accept, move forward, respect our president and respect the rule of law," Berger said. "As we raise our kids in our schools, we try to teach them and inculcate them in our civics. Paintings like that, I really think, send a strong, powerful, wrong message to children and students."

Steven Godfrey, chairman of the Fine Arts Department at UAA, said, "I guess the people are upset about the work that's being shown. If they were taking a class at the university and made art that was considered controversial, no matter what their political or religious bent is, we would do our best to protect them and protect their rights to make that kind of work in the institution, whether it would be a student or faculty."

The exhibition that includes the painting is scheduled to remain on display through April 20 in the Kimura Gallery.