Watching the current demise of Confederate monuments and Columbus statues, it’s time again to look at art in state Capitols and other public buildings and ask about the stories they tell.
During a recent visit to the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre, I found the Senate Chamber’s Louisiana Purchase mural particularly jarring. The central figure is a half naked Indigenous woman. The narrative its creates is that she is both hypersexualized and uncivilized.
An angel stands behind her, wrapping her in the civilizing influence of the U.S. flag, a symbol of assimilation.
The worldview they helped create still is alive today
This blog has written often about the Doctrine of Discovery: 15th century Catholic Church edicts that provided the moral and legal justification for European monarchs and their “explorers” to seize Indigenous lands and enslave, convert, or kill Indigenous peoples in lands which would become known as the “New World.”
The Doctrine of Discovery also includes papal edicts issued decades before Columbus sailed, edicts that justified Portugal’s west African slave trade. Continue reading →
Healing Minnesota Stories is remounting its traveling art exhibit that highlights racist art in public spaces and offering alternative student art as one path forward.
The exhibit, “Challenging Public Art,” will run from May 26 to June 30 at First Unitarian Society, 900 Mt Curve Ave, Minneapolis. A reception will be held on Sunday, June 9, noon-1 p.m. Jim Bear Jacobs, Director of Racial Justice for the Minnesota Council of Churches and Healing Minnesota Stories founder, will speak on the exhibit.
Tucked away in room on the Capitol’s third floor hangs a student art exhibit with the unifying theme of “Clean Water Starts with Me.”
The theme just as well could have been: “Water is Life.”
I was particularly struck with by a piece by high school student Claudia St. Germaine (above) with lakes and pines. It creates a typical northern Minnesota scene, perhaps one of the areas where the giant Canadian corporation Enbridge is proposing to dig a large trench to bury a 36-inch pipeline carrying tar sands crude oil, the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world.
This pipeline is the kind of project that threatens our clean drinking water, something too many state officials have chosen to ignore. Continue reading →
A quick update on how other communities are dealing with controversial public art: The University of Notre Dame has announced it will cover controversial Columbus murals, according to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine. It begins:
For more than 130 years, 12 towering murals depicting Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas have flanked a hallway in the University of Notre Dame’s Main Building. But late last week, the university announced that it plans to cover the murals; in a letter explaining the decision, Notre Dame’s president described the artworks as memorializing “a catastrophe” for indigenous peoples.
This is part of a national conversation about public art. St. Paul could learn from Notre Dame’s example.
Task Force Volunteers Sought to Help Select Artists for New Installations in Chambers Used by the City Council and Ramsey County Commission
Four large murals in St. Paul City Hall depict white supremacy and Manifest Destiny, creating an unwelcoming space for many citizens who come there to speak to their elected council members and county commissioners. The Ramsey County Historical Society is creating a task force of community members to select and guide local artists in creating new art that will cover two of the four murals at any one time.
Advocacy still is needed to convince local leaders that all four murals should be moved to a different location, such as a museum. Still, there is a great opportunity for people to help select the new art. The Historical Society is seeking task force applicants, according to a recent posting on the Historical Society website. Chad Roberts, President of the Ramsey County Historical Society, will chair the 11-member group.
The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline publication ran a story — In Wake of Charlottesville, New Scrutiny for Native American Statues — that reported on a number of public art changes and challenges going on across the country. For instance, in Kalamazoo, Mich., officials removed a granite sculpture from the city’s Fountain of the Pioneers, showing “a pioneer, weapon raised, rising above a Native American.”
Last week, Austin, Texas’ Equity Office recommended renaming seven streets and removing three markers honoring Confederate history, “calling it a high priority for the city to decide,” according to a story in the Washington Post. Possible changes include renaming “Confederate Avenue” and “Dixie Drive.” Perhaps its most controversial recommendation was suggesting a possible name change for the city itself, since Stephen Austin worked to perpetuate slavery.
These issues are surfacing locally and nationally and represent deeply important community conversations. Continue reading →
Here is the latest chapter in public entities stepping up to the ongoing and necessary work of questioning the history we tell through public art — and changing it when necessary.
The city of Pittsburgh just removed an 800-pound bronze statue of songwriter Stephan Foster with a black man sitting at his feet playing the banjo, according to an April 26 story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
The move followed an October decision by the Pittsburgh Art Commission, which found that the statue should be removed within six months and hosted in a private, “properly contextualized” location. Many residents have held that the sculpture — showing a shoeless African-American banjo player seated at the famed composer’s feet — is condescending or outright racist. Speakers at commission meetings last year largely agreed.
These are issues confronting civic leaders around the country, including the recent debate about art in the Minnesota State Capitol which had mixed results.
I recently came across a Minnesota Historical Society webpage titled: Reconciling History, focused on art in the Minnesota State Capitol.
The site gives the impression that the Historical Society is wrestling with the problematic issues of historical Capitol art and its embedded racism (my word, not theirs). Yet, the website uses language that seems to keep the Historical Society above the fray, as if it were possible to be neutral about whether or not the art is offensive. As I read its website, the Historical Society’s solution to interpreting Capitol art seems to be simply adding more voices, not taking a position on whether or not the art is racist.
Here’s how the website starts out:
Throughout the United States today, people are having conversations about our relationship with the past. From Confederate statues to artwork in museums and public spaces, communities are struggling to reconcile a historical narrative that leaves so many stories untold.
The Historical Society’s website fails to define what it means by “Reconciling History.” The phrase itself is nonsensical.
Merriam Webster offers several definitions of reconciling. The first is “to restore to friendship or harmony.” Using this definition, “reconciling history” is meaningless. The real challenge is to reconcile people, in our case descendants of white settlers with indigenous peoples.. Even then, the term “reconcile” is inadequate, because it assumes there was a trusting relationship to be restored when that was never the case. Anyway, the Historical Society’s website doesn’t appear to attempt this type of reconciling.
The second definition of reconciling is “to make consistent or congruous, reconcile an ideal with reality.” Using this definition, “reconciling history” is rather meaningless, too. It’s impossible to have a “consistent” and “congruous” history for all people. The Historical Society’s website makes no attempt to reconcile “an ideal with reality.”
The third definition of reconciling is “to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant.” Based on this definition, the Historical Society’s website is an abject failure. It avoids discussing unpleasant history.
The Historical Society’s website leaves me wondering whether it used the term “reconciling history” because it sounds good without thinking through what it means.
The Historical Society’s website states that it took “A critical look at the capitol’s artwork.” It did not. Examining the process the Historical Society and state leaders used to review Capitol art will lay bear why the term “reconciling history” is empty.