Whenever Laura van Hazendonk has a meeting in the Jan Pieter Minckelers Room, something makes her feel uncomfortable: the series of five colorful paintings hung there, showing men and women, some of them with a drink in hand, in – judging by the background – the TU/e's Senate Room. “Look, all the men are in academic gowns, while all the women are wearing low-cut dresses. The largest picture is the worst,” she says, pointing.
How exactly do these paintings affect her? “I don't feel intimidated by them, but they give me an implicit signal that this place is not meant for me.” It's the fact that the people wearing the academic gowns are the men, they hold the professorships. The women appear to be no more than arm candy. And yet, as Van Hazendonk knows, women are the very people the department is keen to hire to increase its staff.
Some three months ago, the doctoral candidate expressed her reservations on an anonymous card deposited in the department's ‘social safety ideas box’. “I know from one colleague that she did the same thing. And, it should be said, other staff have an issue with the paintings, we discuss it among ourselves.”
As the report made via the ideas box achieved no – noticeable – effect, Van Hazendonk was spurred into action. She was joined in her efforts by Tobias Plugge, master's student of Sustainable Energy Technology, and Naomie Amsing, soon to complete her master's at Biomedical Engineering. Plugge's girlfriend also lent a hand with the painting. Of the foursome, only Van Hazendonk is often in Helix, but the others share her sentiments.
“It is important to be aware of the symbolism you're using, especially when social safety is a spearhead of the department,” says Amsing, who as former University Council member and student assistant, has worked to foster diversity and social safety on the campus. “By doing this, we hope to increase that awareness,” adds Plugge.
For many people, the meeting room in question, the Jan Pieter Minckelers Room on the second floor of Helix, will be their first introduction to the department, says Van Hazendonk, “Job applicants, for example. And just now, a group of high-schoolers in their last year before going to uni left the room, they are working here on their coursework. How will they have viewed the paintings?”
Not that she believes all the works should disappear. “The largest one should, but some of the others aren't as bad. They could perhaps be combined with other pieces of art, so that the collection creates a different impression.”
The group's decision to do something playful was deliberate: “We don't want to destroy anything.” On a sheet taken from Amsing's cupboard, they painted a creditable copy of one of the paintings, but the keen observer will see that the sexes have been swapped. The women are now wearing the academic gowns, while the men look on, dressed in crop tops. Amsing: “And we took the opportunity to add more diversity where skin color is concerned.”
Monday morning saw them rolling out the sheet for managing director Mark de Graef, who appreciates their stunt: “I appreciate the signal and also greatly value your direct approach.” His advice to Van Hazendonk is to take up the matter with the Department Council, but he also promises to discuss the matter personally with the Department Board, and to get action taken. “You guys can hold me to that.”
With this promise in the bag, the three slip into the Minckelers Room, where they carefully pull the sheet carrying their artwork taut over the painting it parodies. They admire the result. “I wonder how long it will stay there,” laughs Van Hazendonk.