Each year, scores of high school students across the country compete in the Congressional Art Competition, submitting works of art for a chance to be featured at the U.S. Capitol.
Now, for the second year in a row, a teenager’s painting for the contest has become the center of a political controversy, drawing ire from conservative groups. This time around, the artwork stirred complaints even before making it to Washington.
The painting, a finalist in the competition, currently hangs in California, in the Santa Ana office of Democratic Rep. J. Luis Correa. It depicts the Statue of Liberty wearing a hijab, holding her torch across the left side of her body.
While the painting is simply a piece of art created by a local female high school student, its symbolism is clearly political. It evokes imagery similar to other works of art that have circulated since President Trump’s election, such as the popular “We The People” poster of a woman wearing an American flag as a hijab.
But for some conservatives, the painting has no place in the office of a congressman.
When local activist group We the People Rising saw the painting in Correa’s office, its members set out on a campaign to have it removed, calling it a separation of church and state issue.
Early last month, a member of the group, which advocates for stricter immigration laws, wrote a letter to Correa requesting that his office take down the painting, saying it was “not appropriate” for the public office of a congressman. The group said it received guidance from a legal consultant.
“Ultimately, to attribute a specific religion to the Statue of Liberty is inaccurate, unprofessional and offensive,” wrote Mike McGetrick, an activist in We the People Rising and a resident of Orange, Calif. “In addition, the painting displays the torch of the Statue of Liberty, not as the heralded beacon of light, but rather held awkwardly to one side — in a perplexing, even disturbing, manner.”
Since then, the group has passed out fliers in local neighborhoods, urging constituents to contact the congressman and ask him to remove the painting. It says it will organize a protest on Sept. 11 at Correa’s district office if the painting is not taken down, the Orange County Register reported.
In a videotaped meeting with a representative for Correa, McGetrick called the painting “reprehensible” and “more than a little bit insulting.”
The art “implies we welcome Syrian refugees and all that,” another group member said.
This week, as news of the painting circulated on social media, other conservative publications and figures joined in the criticism. Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, shared a link on Twitter to an article about the painting from the Young Conservatives website, with the message: “ ’Statue of Liberty’ painting found in Congressman’s Office, Then America Spots Something Unusual.”
But Correa said that he will not be taking down the painting. In an interview Tuesday morning with The Washington Post, Correa said the painting is an individual artist’s expression and is only hanging on the office wall because it was chosen as a finalist for the congressional competition. Policing art, and “what is proper, what is not,” he said, would violate freedom of speech laws and lead to a “very dangerous slippery slope.”
“My thoughts were, here’s probably a young Muslim lady who is trying very hard to be part of America, who is trying very hard to show people that she is an American, given the context that is going on around us in our country,” Correa said, speaking by phone from Jerusalem. “By me taking it down I’m acknowledging that she did something wrong.”
After receiving complaints about the painting, the congressman’s office reached out to the House Office of General Counsel for guidance, said Andrew Scibetta, communications director for Correa. The legal team made clear that there was “nothing wrong or in any way malicious in posting this photo,” Scibetta told The Post.
Following advice from law enforcement, Correa’s office declined to identify the painting’s artist, to protect her and prevent her from becoming the target of threats.
The student’s painting came in fourth place among entries in Correa’s district and is one of several runner-up art pieces displayed on the congressman’s wall. The first-place winner of the Congressional Art Competition for Correa’s district — a mural depicting Mexican American World World II veterans — is displayed in a tunnel between the Capitol and House office buildings alongside more than 400 other works from other districts that won.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations shared the Orange County Register’s story about the painting on Facebook, including the words “Islamophobia Watch.” In response, a number of people wrote that the idea behind the nation’s symbol of freedom was initially conceived as an Egyptian woman and — by default in those times — a Muslim.
Indeed, before French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi brought his majestic vision for the Statue of Liberty to the United States, he had conceived an idea for a lighthouse that would stand at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Bartholdi wanted to carve the likeness of an Egyptian peasant woman holding aloft a torch of freedom, according to historian Michael B. Oren. But the Egyptian viceroy could not afford to finance Bartholdi’s project, The Post reported.
The California student’s depiction of Lady Liberty in hijab comes amid a broader national discussion about the meaning of the famous statue, which many Americans consider a welcoming symbol for immigrants. But that notion was challenged last week by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, who told CNN’s Jim Acosta the monument’s poem about the “huddled masses” is not part of the original Statue of Liberty.
Since the congressional art contest began in 1982, more than 650,000 high school students have participated, according to the competition’s website. But as Scibetta said, “it seems that every year there’s something that drives people nuts.”
Earlier this year, a painting inspired by the 2014 civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., became the center of a House battle. The painting, created by Missouri teen David Pulphus, was selected as a winner in last year’s contest and was displayed in the tunnel between the Capitol and the House office buildings. The art work portrayed a horned animal similar to a wild boar in a police uniform tangling with a protester depicted as a wolf. Around them, protesters hold signs with words such as, “Racism kills.”
After it had been displayed for seven months, groups representing law enforcement officers called for its removal because of its perceived negative portrayal of police, The Post reported. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former sheriff, asked House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to have the painting taken down, citing rules against “depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature” on the Capitol premises.
Capitol officials ultimately decided the painting violated House rules and removed it.
But the saga didn’t end there. The following month, the young artist, along with Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), filed a lawsuit in federal courts saying the painting’s removal violated the student’s right to free speech “in bowing to overt political pressure.
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