Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

“Anti-slave rally” to oppose Fred Wilson project

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When I last reported on America’s most interesting public art proposal, Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum in Indianapolis, the project was stuck in neutral.

It still is — and as a result of the apparent inability of the project’s supporters and funders to move forward with their own plans, opponents of the Wilson project are attempting to seize  the initiative with a potentially inflammatory new campaign that refers to E Pluribus Unum a “slave statue” and to E Pluribus Unum‘s alleged racial divisiveness. The group, which calls itself Citizens Against Slave Image  is planning an “anti-slave rally” against the project this Saturday.

Wilson is one of America’s most-honored artists. Typically his work uses installations of pre-existing objects to raise new questions about race-driven historical narratives — or to make points about how those narratives are formed. In 1999 he was awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ fellowship. In 2003 he represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. He is a trustee at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 2009 an Indianapolis civic organization and project called the Indianapolis Cultural Trail – a pedestrian/cycling path that connects far-flung Indianapolis neighborhoods – commissioned Wilson to create a public artwork. Wilson, who describes himself as being of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian descent,” proposed an artwork that took as its point of departure the city’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, a 30-story-tall, neo-classical enormity located at the geographic midpoint of Indianapolis. Designed by German architect Bruno Schmitz, it was erected in 1901-02. One of the figures on the memorial is an African-American man, apparently a former slave (as symbolized by his muscular, bare torso and by the way he is holding a recently broken chain and shackles). Indianapolis has the second-most public monuments of any American city, but according to Wilson this figure is the only African-American depicted in any of them.

Wilson’s proposed sculpture, titled E Pluribus Unum [renderings above and left, via the ICT], would reproduce that figure isolated and relocated it from its position on the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Wilson would also remove the signifiers of human bondage, resulting in his literally and figuratively freeing the African-American figure from references to slavery. Into the figure’s outstretched arm, the arm that the figure uses to reach up toward the white man on the monument, Wilson would place a flag that celebrates the African Diaspora. Wilson’s sculpture would be visible from the existing memorial, thus pointedly critiquing its paternalism. The project’s funder would be the Central Indiana Community Foundation, a major local philanthropic organization with $600 million in assets. According to CICF’s website, only one of its 19 trustees is African-American.

What appears to be a small group of Indianapolis residents opposes the artwork so vociferously that the CICF has been paralyzed to the point of inaction, unwilling to proceed with the project. Nine months ago, CICF president Brian Payne told MAN that his organization planned to hold a series of public meetings in an effort to foster dialogue about the project and build consensus. Despite a $50,000 display of public support for the project from the Joyce Foundation, CICF has held no meetings since Payne discussed CICF’s public meetings plan with MAN. Mindy Taylor Ross, the public art coordinator for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail told me that she hopes that the group launches meetings early this fall, a full year after Payne first announced plans for them.

Into that void has stepped the apparently ad-hoc Citizens Against Slave Image, which has created a website called “1 Slave is Enough.” CASI has used the extended period of CICF/ICT inaction to organize opposition to Wilson’s artwork and will hold an “anti-slave rally” at the state capital building on Saturday morning. [The group’s flyer for the event is at right.] According to CASI’s web page, State Rep. William Crawford, the ranking minority member on the Indiana House’s Ways and Means Committee, will be among the attendees. (Crawford represents a district several miles away from where the Wilson would be installed.) The group’s website describes its website and mission as:

“dedicated, first and foremost to stopping the erecting of another slave monument in Indianapolis’ public space. We are dedicated to preserving the dignity of every citizen in our society. This is not a black versus white issue. It is a HUMAN DIGNITY issue.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument [sic], located on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis already displays a ‘freed’ slave in a humiliated position. The creators of this website declare that one slave image in Indianapolis’ public space is enough. We are oppossed to the plans to recreate another slave monument as our city’s only testimony to African American life and achievement in our great city of Indianapolis.

No where in Indianapolis is any other racial, ethnic or culture being depicted in a negative fashion. Additionally, we strongly believe that there is no “cultural” value to slavery.”

Elsewhere on the website, the group refers to Wilson as a “proposed slave image,” even though the figure is Wilson proposes to use is a representation of a freedman. Emails and Facebook posts promoting the rally have been distributed by Donna Stokes-Lucas, the former owner of an Indianapolis bookstore and gallery. The emails list Michael “Mikal” Saahir, imam at the Nur-Allah Islamic Center of Indianapolis as a contact. (Neither Stokes-Lucas nor Saahir had replied to emails from MAN as of publication time.)

Saahir also published an op-ed in the Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s African-American newspaper in June, in which he described E Pluribus Unum as a “slave statue” that “continues to divide Indianapolis along racial lines, not unite us.” However, a recent discussion of the artwork on Indianapolis’ most popular African-American talk radio program, hosted by Amos Brown, featured at least as many African-Americans calling in to support the artwork as to oppose it. That program aired in January. UPDATE: Amos Brown & Co. also discussed the work on Wednesday. [Image: Wilson at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, via the ICT.]

A webpage with details of Saturday’s rally says that CASI feels that “the city of Indianapolis should not be in the business of promoting and erecting any negative images of its citizens, even for the sake of ‘artistic expression,’ particularly those citizens who have been historically and intentionally disenfranchised and oppressed. [Ed.: Indianapolis is not a funder of the proposed artwork. However, the plaza in front of the City-County Building is the proposed site.] We believe there is nothing positive about the institution of slavery!”

Neither does Wilson.  In an interview with MAN in October, 2010, Wilson expressed surprise that his artwork was being described as depicting African-American culture in a negative fashion or that it could be construed as saying anything positive about slavery.

“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,” Wilson told me. “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.”

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  1. David A Ross says:

    I assume Max Anderson and his curators at the IMA are speaking out in support of Wilson’s project. I hope the museum is playing its role as the site for the contest of ideas and values, as this is an enormously useful teachable moment for the city, and for all of us following the development of this remarkable project.

  2. Mati says:

    important and necessary work

  3. Sarah Stierch says:

    It’s reasons like this that I do not miss living in Indianapolis.

    Perhaps they need to go deal with the Emancipation Memorial too :P


    Frederick Douglas spoke at the dedication.

  4. Mindy Ross says:

    The IMA has not made any public statements in support of the project.

  5. Wilson’s position on this makes sense in a way, but it’s unfortunate that he isn’t reaching out to the opposition group and offering that they get what he’s doing on a fundamental level, that they are on the same team, and could work together.

    This confusion about whether the sculpture depicts a slave or a free man is the point of the project. The ultimate goal of the project is transformative and highly aspirational. He sees what 1 Slave Is Enough sees, and wants what 1 Slave Is Enough wants.

    I can’t help but think there’s an opportunity to harness the rhetorical work the opposition is doing to support his project.

  6. Tyler Green says:

    Wilson has in fact reach out through personal appearances, media appearances and the like. Click through the links in the post to see how.

  7. No artist in America has distilled the legacy of racial strife so ably and poignantly as Fred Wilson. The subtle gesture he has undertaken for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail will resonate not only as a symbol of a missing narrative in Midwestern cultural history, but also as a powerful evocation of the selfless courage of African-Americans in service to this country. ‘E Pluribus Unum’ promises to be among the most rewarding works of public art in the Midwest. –Maxwell L. Anderson, The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO, Indianapolis Museum of Art

  8. Hi Tyler,

    Not suggesting he hasn’t reached out–I read the interview you did with him before posting. I did not listen to the hour of radio, but will.

    I’m suggesting that the connection hasn’t been made yet between the opposition’s POV and Wilson’s project.

    The project is fantastic because it has this aspirational goal of transforming a representation of a slave into a representation of a free man without changing the image of the man itself. It’s important work because it sidesteps this problematic theme in which we talk about blackness and the legacy of slavery by replacing or balancing negative images with positive ones. Example: the Arthur Ashe statue at the end of monument row in Richmond.

    Wilson’s monument is saying that freedom from slavery is inherent, that if we change the way we see then we don’t all have to be Arthur Ashe or wrestle with all these very real cultural pressures that radiate out of that insistence on positivity.

    I can’t think of a more important thing to say, or a more uniting idea. But it’s not something Wilson can unilaterally declare. He’s been focusing on saying that this image is positive when that’s not quite true. The goal is to transform the image. That work has to happen inside the viewer.

    I think that as an artist with a transformative, aspirational goal working in a public space, he’s got a responsibility to help his audience do this work. I also think he’s got an opportunity to do so, and is certainly creative enough to back away from defending the project and start using the opposition as material. What if he agreed with his opposition that one slave really is enough? What if he participated in the rally alongside his opposition? What if he built enough trust with them to be able to ask serious questions about the nature of the positivism they want and the pressures it puts them under?

  9. […] as a site-specific artwork in response to a commission from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. (For details on the artwork, the project, the site and Saturday’s rally, click here.) The site Wilson chose is on the plaza in front of Indianapolis’ City-County Building, near […]

  10. […] Considering that there was an anti-E Pluribus Unum rally scheduled for Saturday — its organizers called it an “anti-slave rally” — it’s not difficult to connect-the-dots between Payne and ‘community […]

  11. Kimberly Camp says:

    Wilson’s work is extraordinary and the community is lucky to be able to have one of his works. To mount such a ludicrous protest is tatamount to shackling the minds of the people. Regrettably, people who protest the freedom and creativity of others have louder voices. Martin Luther Kings said we should stand with our Backs Straight! Kudos to Fred Wilson for his brilliance.

  12. […] That group used racially inflammatory language and imagery and an abundance of outright falsehoods, including a shameful ’slave wanted’-style poster, to oppose the […]

  13. […] was selected and how the statue’s meaning and interpretation could be subsequently managed.  Wilson himself recognized the folly of aspiring to control such meanings, arguing that “`Public art is … in public and people can interpret it in the way they will and […]

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