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.
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.”