The work Fred Wilson proposed for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, E Pluribus Unum, takes a cue from Indianapolis’ huge downtown Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (at right, image via Flickr user Phil King, and detail below via Flickr user OZinOH), a neo-classical enormity designed by German architect Bruno Schmitz and completed in 1901. One of the figures on Schmitz’s memorial is an ex-slave, as symbolized by the African-American man’s bare torso and the apparently recently broken chain and shackles. (The Col. Eli Lilly Civil War Museum is in the base of the memorial. It chronicles Indiana’s Civil War history.)
Wilson proposed to create a sculpture out of Indiana limestone that would isolate that figure, mostly remove the signifier of bondage and to slightly him. Into his figure’s outstretched arm Wilson would place a flag that represents the African Diaspora. Wilson’s sculpture would be visible from the existing memorial. (This excellent short video features Wilson presenting and explaining the project. The proposed flag is below.)
As I noted this morning, initial public reaction to Wilson’s artwork was muted. The Indianapolis Recorder, Indy’s black newspaper, published what was by all accounts a thorough, considered story on Wilson and his sculpture in early September. (The story is no longer online.) The story was apparently mild, but the reaction to it was not.
On Sept. 16, the Recorder published an inflammatory letter from former Indiana Public Schools teacher and board member Leroy Robinson. In his letter, Robinson excoriated the project. “[T]his is not the 19th century and the African-American community in Indianapolis does not need another ‘image’ in downtown Indianapolis to remind us of how downtrodden, beat down, hapless, and submissive we once may have been,” Robinson wrote. “We don’t need any more images of lawn jockeys, caricatures… no more buffoonery, no more shuckin’ and jiven’, and no more ape-ish looking monuments.” Along with the letter the Recorder ran a picture of a lawn jockey, which likely confused readers because the image was unrelated to anything Wilson has proposed.
“We’ve been working for four weeks to correct misinformation, to re-publish renderings,” Indianapolis Cultural Trail curator and public art project coordinator Mindy Taylor Ross told me on the phone last week.
Wilson understands Robinson’s position — he just disagrees with it. “Images are obviously at the heart of racism because we look different,” he told me, also in a phone conversation. “So the manipulation of images has been a part of the bone of contention for a long, long time in the African-American community because it’s been kind of controlled by others.”
Indianapolis’ African-American community seems eager to join the debate that Robinson’s letter started. (The Indianapolis Star has covered the dust-up, but in a somewhat odd, what’s-this-about manner.) The conflict came to a head last week at a community meeting held at Indianapolis’ Madame Walker Theater. Almost 300 people showed up to talk with Wilson and to debate his artwork. According to both Ross and Wilson, the overwhelming majority of the audience was interested in having a thoughtful discussion and a large majority of the audience was supportive of the work. Both thought that about a dozen people made dialogue difficult by regularly interrupting and initiating a ruckus.
“It was just one of those situations where there are hundreds of people there and the loudest voices get heard and everyone else gets drowned out,” Ross said. “After the letter to the paper, we looked at it as we’re kind of starting over again. It was the meeting at which we re-introduced Fred.”
After the sometimes contentious and out-of-control meeting at the Madame Walker Theater, Wilson went on the most important black radio program in Indianapolis, “Afternoons with Amos.” Wilson spent nearly an hour discussing his project with the host, Amos Brown, and dozens of callers. (Audio from the show is available here.) The overwhelming majority of the callers were in favor of the project. The discourse was polite, considered and substantive.
“We are not against you Mr. Fred Wilson, not whatsoever,” one caller said. “Nor are we against art, nor are we against the the cultural trail. But we’re against the use of another slave image in downtown Indianapolis. No other race or ethnicity is being depicted in their worst moment in American history on that trail. Once again, welcome to our city.”
Another caller: “At one point we were concerned about the Confederate flag flying over state buildings and now we’re concerned about an image of slavery being placed in front of our city’s buildings. I think it’s confusing and I wonder: What if someone wanted to place swastikas on the cultural trail as an image of expression? Or if someone wanted to place nooses around trees? Who decides what is appropriate and what is not appropriate?
“I don’t think this should be a popularity contest where [you have people saying] I like this and I like that… I think this is a little more serious, maybe too serious for a cultural trail. I think Mr. Wilson should get his commission and he should be paid to do this piece ,but maybe there would be a better venue. When you have a cultural trail and public art and none of the [other] artists [did something quite like this]… there were no white leaders called or focus groups around that art. They had to know that this piece would bring some controversy. So in talking about disparity, it’s very unfair for the African-American community to endure all this discussion and constant divisive meetings about this piece when no other ethnic group is faced with this. At a time when we could be spending our time on elections and millions of other things, we’re arguing about a slave downtown.”
I wasn’t at the Madame Walker Theater event, but I found listening to Brown and Wilson on the radio to be particularly instructive. (If I were teaching at an art school, I’d scrub this week’s lesson plan and play it for my class. Brown guided his guest and his callers through a super hour of radio.) It’s uncommon for artists and the non-art-world public to engage in such a direct manner, especially outside the context of an art museum lecture hall, so I asked Wilson what he thought of the openness of the conversation.
“Public art is different from art that ends up in museums or museum collections,” Wilson said. “It’s out there in public and people can interpret it in the way they will and often without any mediation, which is really great. But on the other hand, people are bringing different understandings of art and its forms to it, so one has to be very responsible with that idea. But given that, for me it’s quite amazing that some people couldn’t get past the image of this freed slave as a slave. I thought that by taking him out of context, he became a man and became something else other than just what was placed on him by the tropes of being in the monument.
“I feel like there was such a diversity of opinions from the audience at the Walker Theater and at the radio station because some had the idea it should be a family group there [in my sculpture] or that there should be perhaps a famous African-American simply as a statue, as a monument. Some people thought that perhaps there should be a John Brown or someone holding a gun. So it ran the gamut of emotions of what they would like to see. I personally thought that asepct of the conversation was really great, because my over-arching goal is to have these images discussed around the table and to also think about what the images of African-Americans in monument form should be for the world.
“I guess I would say that positivist imagery is different for different people and I am infusing a different way of thinking about that. I found what I did to be positive. It gets it out of that context it was in so you could see it as original as what it was, that it was an image from the past and not the present. It’s part of my practice to use the same image to make that same point rather than to make a new image. I don’t believe you forget the old image until you really deal with it. ”
I suggested to Wilson that his embrace of the ongoing discourse was a little bit unusual in that art-worlders frequently talk about how much they want discourse, but at the first sign of dissent or discord they retreat back into the comfortable little art-world bubble. Wilson agreed — and pointed to how this Indianapolis conversation is the kind of artist-public discourse wherein art can play an important role as a community protagonist.
“I was really thrilled by all the dialogue,” Wilson said. “It actually invigorated me because I’m hearing from everyone. I was trying to reach everyone before I made the piece and tell them what I do before [the controversy] started to emerge, but I’m dealing with a city here not a museum. Museums are kind of finite. At a museum you can kind of test the water and see what people think and how they react to things given their environment. Information goes in and comes out and work is made. With a city, you realize — or I have come to realize — that as many groups as you speak to there are other groups. You can’t ever reach everyone. So I’m just really thrilled that there’s engagement and talk about art. This conversation is just really unusual. I’ve been really thrilled with it. Everyone in Indianapolis has been great to me and respectful and thrilled with what I do, but even people who are against [E Pluribus Unum] seem to still respect me and my work. They just don’t like this one.
“It’s a conversation with a public with many ideas about what art should be. That excited me, engaged me, and in my mind what I would like is to see more of this play out in actuality. I think a lot of it is also that there’s a history of broken promises and things not happening the way they should there, so the weight that’s put on this particular commission is great. I’m not talking about the people who commissioned my work, I just mean mean the general history [of the relationship between Indianapolis’ power structure and the African-American community].”
The future of Wilson’s project is still in doubt as the major funder, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, continues a series of meetings and discussions throughout the city. (The executive director of CICF, Brian Payne, is traveling this week and was unavailable for comment as of publication time. I’ll have him on MAN soon.) Wilson says the piece is final, that he won’t make changes in response to community discussions. Ross and Wilson both said that they are excited by the discussions and the way in which Wilson’s art has emerged as a catalyst for community discussion, but both are unsure what the CICF will ultimately decide.
“If this were to happen it would really engage me and excite me to stay engaged with Indianapolis and to see that something else happens too,” Wilson said. “Some people are saying that there are a million monuments there — second only to Washington in terms of monuments in American cities — so why not have a monument on the statehouse lawn of a famous African-American from Indianapolis. I would stick by them and support that. At this town hall meeting at the Madam Walker Theater, someone said, ‘Why don’t you work with some of the younger artists here?’ I suggested that I certainly would. There’s a lot that could come out of this in a very positive light. We’ll see what happens.”
According to the Recorder, the next public meeting at which Wilson’s sculpture will be discussed is November 5.