© 2013 by Lili Bernard
On December 13, 2011, the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) cancelled the construction of the E Pluribus Unum monument for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene & Marilyn Glick, which they had commissioned artist Fred Wilson to design in 2007. The work was in the process of being created for placement in front of the City-County Building. The purpose of this essay is to explore the background, relevant facts and opinions surrounding the controversy behind the cancellation. For a deeper exploration, it is helpful to first take a look at the relevant interests and notable achievements of Fred Wilson.
Fred Wilson, born 1954 in the Bronx, is a Brooklyn, New York-based installation artist-activist, who refers to himself as being of “African, Native American European and Amerindian” descent . In the 1970’s, while earning a BFA from SUNY Purchase, where he was the only Black student in the program. Fred Wilson began artistically exploring issues of identity and racism, which continue to inform his work today. Wilson describes his artistic practice as an exercise in “bringing together objects that are in the world, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having things presented in the way I want to see them.”
It is important to note Fred Wilson’s accomplishments in order to understand the levying power which this artist has in the proposing and defending of his work. In 1992 Fred Wilson represented the United State in the Cairo Biennial. In 1999 he won the McArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and in 2003 the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award. He represented the US in the 2003 Venice Biennale, and in 2008 he became a Whitney Museum Trustee. He is currently represented by Pace Gallery in New York City
Fred Wilson’s seminal work was Mining the Museum, an installation exhibition, in 1992, at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The installation incorporated the Maryland Historical Society’s collection in a conceptual narrative, highlighting the history of Native Americans and African Americans in Maryland. Wilson constructed the narrative by juxtaposing artifacts pertaining to the living environment and lifestyle of European colonialists, against artifacts which pertain to the colonialists’ conquering of American Indigenous populations and of their enslaving of African-descended people, along with other artifacts excavated from the Black civil rights struggle.
It is relevant to take a closer look at one of the installations in mining the museum, because it serves as a good example of how Fred Wilson cleverly spatially positions artifacts to evoke feeling and narrative, and to elevate social consciousness, as he was attempting to do so in E Pluribus Unum. The example in Mining the Museum which relates to E Pluribus Unum is, Cabinet Making 1820-1910, an installation in a crimson-colored room, where empty, ornately-crafted antique Victorian chairs (often hand-crafted by slaves), rest above crimson-colored platforms. The chairs, devoid of bodies, are arranged spaciously in the middle of the room, alluding to the audience section of an auditorium or a hall. The chairs face a black whipping post which rests on the cold cement floor, cramped next to a wall. The historical records of the museum indicate that the whipping post was last used in 1938, in the Baltimore City Jail, to punish a man who was convicted of beating his wife.
The ample spatial arrangement of the elevated chairs connotes aloofness and aristocracy; the whipping post cornered against the wall and touching the ground alludes to inferiority and subservience. The crimson color of the walls and the platforms, upon which the chairs are raised, speaks of torture and anguish. The color and composition remind us of the blood which was shed on the backs of slaves as they were whipped while being made to carry the burdensome loads of the oppressors’ resources and riches upon their backs. The whipping post, resembling a cross, reminds us of the Crucifixion in which Christ shed his blood. It also reminds us of the role which Christianity played in the lives of slaves and in colonialism in general.
The absence of bodies in the audience-like chairs and in the whipping post provides for a specter-like feeling. The void of human figures invites or impels viewers to implicate themselves, as they imagine the spectacle of a punitive slave owner torturing his chattel. Does one imagine oneself as the one being beaten on the post? Or as an enslaved peer, standing barefoot on the cold cement, while being forced to witness the castigation of his or her loved one?
Or rather — does one imagine that he or she is the oppressor? Or his privileged kin, reveling or recoiling while opting to witness the spectacle from a lofty seat, where feet, ensconced in finely embroidered silk stockings and elegant shoes, don’t touch the ground?
It is useful to thus break down the elements of Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum installations in order to fully understand the sophistication in the thought process of the artist, as he manipulates artifacts, through spatial arrangement and relationship with one another, to metaphorically reveal very complex socio-historical dynamics which still plague our society today. Thus, with Mining the Museum, began Fred Wilson’s fame in deconstructing the annals of history by spatially repurposing artifacts, excavated from the vaults of historical institutions, through which the artist explores, via juxtaposition and repositioning, the history of racism in the United States of America.
Mining the Museum revealed the critical thinking and poetic sophistication of the artist and his ability to work with historical public institutions. This seminal work of Wilson’s, provided the foundation upon which the City of Indianapolis would commission Fred Wilson to build a public sculpture.
In 2007, when the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) approached Fred Wilson to create a public sculpture for their Downtown Indianapolis monument collection, Wilson proposed building a monument which would involve the replication, isolation and repositioning of the only African-American figure present, at that time, among all of the Downtown Indianapolis monuments. (In 2010, a monument of Booker T. Washington was unveiled, making it the second Black figure present within Indianapolis’ monument collection.)
The figure which Fred Wilson proposed to replicate is of an emancipated Black male slave in theSoldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. In the monument, the Black man is sitting, holding broken shackles in his right hand, which is extended upward, in a pleading posture, towards a White woman. Fred Wilson’s proposal includes tilting the man upward and replacing the shackles with a flag pole from which waves a quilted banner composed with images of flags from the African Diaspora.
As it is important to look at the special arrangement which Fred Wilson constructed in his Mining the Museum exhibition; so is it important to consider the spatial arrangements of the figures within the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, as well as the positioning of the historic monument within the city of Indianapolis.
A neoclassical monument, commemorating the American Civil War; the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was designed by the German architect Bruno Schmitz (1858-1916). Schmitz had designed the three largest war monuments in Germany which were all affiliated with German nationalism, prior to World War I. The Indianapolis Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument was completed in 1901, and stands 284 feet and 6 inches tall. It rests in the middle of Monument Circle which is in the center of Indianapolis. The monument is visually prominent in its location, enjoying center stage.
In the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, the Black man is sitting at the feet of a White woman, looking up toward her as he offers her the broken shackles. The White woman is proudly looking up and away from the Black man as she holds up a flag with her right hand. Her left hand grasps the top of a military shield, upon which appears the Seal of the United States, namely the words E. Pluribus Unum, engraved on a ribbon underneath the spread wings of an embossed eagle. The protective shield rests upright by the White woman’s left side, separating her from the beckoning Black man who sits with his rump flush against the ground at her feet.
The only figure in the monument who is neither sitting upon an object nor standing; the Black man is the character with the lowest vantage point in the composition. All of the figures in the monument are fully clothed, with the exception of the bare-footed Black man, who is nude from the waste up, bearing his muscular torso.
One might ask, “Why is the emancipated slave in this monument not a soldier in uniform, standing firm in battle, rather than bare-chested and idle on his bottom, beckoning to a White woman?” There were many ex-slaves who fought in the Union, during the Civil War, and unfortunately many slaves who were forced to fight for the Confederacy, as well.
The casting of the Black figure as inferior, in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which rests in the center of the City of Indianapolis for all to see, can be interpreted as an example of the subliminal racist imagery which is systematically sewn into the fabric of American ideology, both visually and rhetorically. The result of this methodology is the desensitizing of society to the denigration of Black people, thereby feeding the infirmity of subconscious racism.
The environmental embedding of subliminal racist imagery woven into the subconscious of the American people has resulted in a phenomenon where even the most seemingly liberally-oriented people blurt racist comments, without even realizing that they are doing so. Thus, involuntarily or subconsciously, they play a role in the systematic oppression of Black people.
In contrast, one might also argue that the inferior placement of the Black male in the monument is not a deliberate attempt to subliminally manipulate society towards maintaining a racist outlook. It is possible that Bruno Schmitz’ design of the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Monument was not the result of subconscious racism on the part of the artist. Schmitz’ composition may be, instead, a deliberate rendering of the lowered social status of Black men in America or of the prevalent misperception that Blacks are inferior. Schmitz may have intended for the monument to be a reflection of the fact that, although the Black man has been emancipated, American society as a whole still perceives him to be at the lowest level of humanity. The composition can, therefore, be considered not as a vehicle of subliminal racist manipulation, but rather as a signifier of the social status of Black people, post Civil War. Though emancipated, the Black man was and still is at bottom of the totem pole, so to speak, with regard to privilege and civil rights.
It is important to look critically at the placement of the Black figure in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in order to understand Fred Wilson’s motive in metaphorically deconstructing and “extracting” the Black figure from its original position within the monument. Fred Wilson’s attempt to deconstruct the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument is an effort to expunge the stain of racism, to erase the racial insensitivity which plagues our nation, both consciously and subconsciously. It is an attempt to obliterate the ubiquitous bigotry, perpetuated pervasively by commonplace denigrating rhetoric and negative subliminal imagery injected into the mindset of a desensitized nation. Such an attempt to deconstruct subliminal racist imagery, through metaphoric appropriation, makes the artist an activist.
The title which Fred Wilson chose for the proposed monument is also metaphoric: E Pluribus Unum, derived from the motto in the US Seal, engraved upon the shield which separates the Black man from the White woman in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. The use of this title is poetic on a number of levels. The title, like the figure, is extracted from the original monument. E Pluribus Unum. It is Latin for “Out of many, one.” The Black man in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, was at the time, the only Black figure in all of the many monuments in Indianapolis.
The title plays on yet another level of poetic significance: one which involves history. Before E. Pluribus Unum was adopted by an Act of Congress, in 1782, as a de facto motto for the United States (until it was replaced, in 1952, by “In God We Trust,” as the Official US motto) ; the phrase appeared prominently on the cover of a popular men’s periodical, during the American Revolution. The publication was called, The Gentleman’s Magazine. This is significant to the placement of the Black man in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
The low positioning of the Black man in relation to all the other figures in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, and his subservient gesture toward the White woman who separates herself from him with the military shield, indicate that the Black man is considered to be not only inferior, but less of a man, far less a “Gentleman.” The inferior positioning is a reminder that the Black man though “emancipated,” does not enjoy the same privileges as do his White male counterparts. He is still perceived as chattel, not as a “Gentleman.” During the Civil War, which the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument commemorates, such a title (“Gentleman”) was preserved for White men only. Similarly, during the Revolutionary War, when the word’s E Pluribus Unum appeared prominently on the cover of the popular Gentleman’s Magazine, the word “Gentleman” was preserved for White men only.
Fred Wilson “extracting” the Black man from the monument, isolating him, tilting him upward and replacing the broken shackles in his hand with the pole and banner comprised of African Diaspora flags, elevates the status of the Black man from that of defeated to that of victor, from lowly ex-slave to lofty “Gentleman.” Rather than sitting stagnantly on his rump, while beckoning to a White woman (as he is in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument); the Black man in Fred Wilson’s proposal is upwardly-tilted and appears to be rising up from the ground, moving victoriously forward, as is the White Woman in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
There were many who supported Fred Wilson’s vision, including the Joyce Foundation, who awarded $50,000.00 to the Central Indiana Community Foundation towards the construction of the monument. ArtInfo journalist, Tyler Green, wrote that Fred Wilson’s monument is “the smartest, most ambitious public art project currently under consideration in America.” Green ranked Wilson’s proposed monument as number eight in his Modern Art Notes 2010 Top Ten List, and described the project as,
“The most thoughtful work of public art proposed in years, Wilson’s sculpture kicked off a city-wide conversation from which art and artists too often shy away. Wilson’s engagement with the residents of Indianapolis should be a model for other artists.”
There was also opposition expressed against the construction of Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum. One organization, the Citizens Against Slave Image (CASI) was created “for the sole purpose of opposing E Pluribus Unum from being placed on public space.” CASI is a group composed of Black and White people. They have actively protested against the construction of the E Pluribus Unum via picketing, press conferences and letters to State and City Officials. They wrote:
“We oppose locating this art piece on public property and feel that the city of Indianapolis should not be in the business of housing any negative images portraying any group of its citizens for the sake of artistic expression, particularly those that have been historically disenfranchised and oppressed. The proposed shoeless, shirtless, and unfinished back of the slave image represents the slave’s submissiveness, whippings and lack of humanness that, sadly, characterized the detestable institution of chattel slavery. We believe that there is nothing positive, empowering or uplifting about slavery, nor is slavery “a culture” to be housed on the Cultural Trail.”
Several public forums were held, allowing the community to express its views, regarding the proposed construction of Fred Wilson’s E. Pluribus Unum. Brian Payne, president of the CICF, called for the series of forums to occur, in light of the opposition which surfaced against the monument. One such public forum occurred at the Madam Walker Theater Center on October 19, 2010.
At the end of Fred Wilson’s presentation, during this public forum, there was applause as well as oppositional outbursts. Journalist David Joppe, of Indianapolis’ alternative Nuvo periodical, wrote the following of the forum,
“What we know so far is that most people — including those who attended a raucous public meeting at the Walker Theatre last October — when asked about the piece seem to think it’s all right. A comparatively small but highly vocal group has problems with it.”
Other articles in the press stated that many residents present at these forums expressed being upset over the monument. Pike High School history teacher Leroy Robinson, who is a Black man opposed to the project, likened the monument to a “black lawn jockey.” Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, another Black man opposed to the monument said, “You’re not asking us what we want, you’re telling us.”
Following the October 19 forum, in an interview with journalist Jessica Williams-Gibson of the Indianapolis Reporter, Fred Wilson, said, ““I wasn’t hearing the fullest of the voices here. I try to talk to people when I’m working on a project and whatever I do, makes sense for that community . . . I am an outsider here and I have to continue to tell myself that. It’s a complex place and I don’t know the ins and outs.”
The CICF created a website called FredWilsoIndy.org for the purpose of archiving and publicizing the project and the controversy surrounding it, as well as for providing on online forum in which the public may express their views of the proposed monument. There are varying views expressed in the Community Forum section of the website. One Black person, identified as “Trobinson9322” wrote,
“We as Black people have been programmed (internally and externally) to feel ashamed of our enslaved fore parents. Rightly despising and shunning the actions of American slavery’s perpetrators, we also, unfortunately, seem to have thrown the memory of the people subjected to slavery onto the fire of forgetfulness. Wilson has put art in a central position of raising important questions about racial representation, the power of images, reclaiming and repurposing, seeing anew, the importance of dialogue, and the need to address unresolved issues in general. Not completing this project will once again sweep this city’s and country’s issues back under the rug until the next brave soul comes along to point out what has been sitting in plain sight.”
Another Black man, Frank Jameson, left a similar comment in the forum. He wrote,
“Slavery is a part of our history and we should not be ashamed of that. It is what it is, history. But, it is not our entire history. And we could do more to glorify that aspect of our past. In the end I hope that Mr. Wilsons sculpture will be erected and it will help to keep this discussion ongoing.”
This same sentiment is echoed in an entry by another person who identifies him or herself as “Citizen” and states that he or she is not African-American. “Citizen” wrote,
“Figuratively speaking, we’re all slaves to something. Even though I can’t claim the same heritage or culture, I and my family are more enriched from sharing in the diversity. I would hope that a visible reminder of our shared past and present will lead us to a better future.”
Another person (of unknown ethnicity) who identifies herself in the forum as “Myra Mason,” wrote a contrasting opinion:
“I always hated the slave figure on the Soldiers and Sailors monument. There should have been Black soldiers and sailors depicted. Since it was at the top of the monument, it was out of sight and I could forget it. Now you want to put it where I cannot avoid. Please take this idea somewhere else!”
A person identified as Imohtep82, wrote, “Why a slave, why not Imohtep or a queen or pharaoh or at least a slave breaking the chains?” A similar entry by someone called “Guests,” reads, “What message are we sending as a city when we display a sculpture of a slave? Would guests to our city take time to reflect on the work or would they merely pass by noting it to be a slave?”
A person identified as “Supporter,” with a picture of a White woman tagged to the name retorts, “But it’s NOT a slave. Wilson’s entire concept is to remove it from the slave context and turn it into a statement of positive African American identity. This is what he DOES.”
Another person who supports Fred Wilson’s proposal and identifies himself or herself as “Another Artist,” states in the forum,
“Many people who disagree with the project are so focused on hearing their own voices or using this work of art as a political, public platform that they have not been able to hear anyone else or even considered that other members of the African American community who support the project (not because they are “selling out”) do so because the work Wilson is producing is their focus – not whose side they sit on, who came up with the idea or how it was born.”
The Community Forum also includes a comment by someone identified as “Charles,” who claims to be in president of an art college in California. “Charles,” wrote,
“I am a total outsider – president of an art college in California. For what it’s worth, the perspective of an art-involved outsider is that the only way you would get me to downtown Indy is with a work of the quality and importance of Wilson’s sculpture. It would be a great asset to your town, and a great loss if you hide away – or worse, if you don’t complete – this highly significant work.”
There is another section in the Fred Wilson Indy website, entitled “Your Voice.” It includes articles and letters, written about the Fred Wilson proposal. One such article is Embrace Slave Statue as a Learning Experience, by Mildred Strong, whose grandfather was a slave. Mildred states,
“So let us display “E Pluribus Unum” in a prominent place in this city, so that we may ponder the futility of slavery and its far-reaching effects, realizing that slavery was an important part of American history. Let us not hide from our past but use it as a painful learning experience.”
Also found in the “Your Voice” section is an article by, Brian Payne, President and CEO of CICF. Payne, who is White, states,
“To that end we recently announced the removal of the City-County Building as a potential location for the artwork. There are also other components to consider, including whether this project moves forward or not. The community will help determine that decision.”
Another prominent entry in the “Your Voice” section of the Fred Wilson Indy website is a letter from Maxwell L. Anderson, CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a White man who supports the erecting of Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum. In the letter Anderson wrote,
“Let’s get “E Pluribus Unum” fabricated and installed. It has the promise to become the most important work of public art in our city — and among the most important and talked-about of our generation. It also has the potential to improve the quality of racial dialogue throughout our fractured country, much in the way that Maya Lin’s memorial deepened our thinking about another divisive issue and showed us a way forward. We can foster a meaningful dialogue about race through a single, very important sculpture.”
Anderson compared the objection voiced against Fred Wilson’s monument to that which was initially expressed against Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. He wrote, “Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., a figurative scar in the earth, was reviled by many at its 1982 dedication, because it lacked positive attributes about the soldiers who gave their lives. Today it is among the most acclaimed war memorials in the world — in particular by veterans and their families.”
Anderson claims that the Fred Wilson’s proposed public sculpture operates on multiple levels, beyond aesthetics and celebratory. One such level is the statue serving as an impetus and vehicle for discussion on race relations and awareness. Anderson writes.
“One of these [levels] is that a slave, or more accurately a freed one, has been an unnoticed component of the central symbol of our city in Monument Circle for over a century. It took Fred Wilson’s artistic act to get us to notice it. Wilson has proposed to free the slave from the monument, and thereby point to the absence of other monuments to African-Americans. But he has also forced a valuable discussion about race in our city for the first time in recent memory.
And that is why all citizens should be proud to bring their loved ones to see Wilson’s artwork. Because it is a powerful demonstration of the intelligence, bravery and leadership of one of this century’s most celebrated and important African-American artists, who is making a compelling work for this place, at this time.”
It is significant to note that Anderson describes Fred Wilson not as one of the century’s most important artists, but as one of the century’s most “important African-American artists.” Though Anderson’s intention may be to extol Wilson, he perhaps unknowingly relegates him to the role of being an important artist only among a relatively small group of artists: those who are Black. If Anderson’s intention were to praise Wilson as one of the century’s most important artist, while referencing the agency which the artist has over the subject of racism, because he is a member of a racially oppressed group of people, which therefore lends authenticity to his work; Anderson could have written,
“And that is why all citizens should be proud to bring their loved ones to see Wilson’s artwork. Because it is a powerful demonstration of the intelligence, bravery and leadership of an African American man who is one of this century’s most celebrated and important artists, and who is making a compelling work for this place, at this time.”
Maxwell L. Anderson describing Fred Wilson as an important “African-American artist,” as opposed to an “important artist,” is an example of the common-place derisive rhetoric towards Black people which even the most well-intending, socially conscious White individuals exercise, without perhaps even realizing that they are doing so. It is kin to the common phrases, “He’s black, but intelligent,” or “She’s Black, but pretty.”
When a Caucasian artist is deemed important, he or she is generally not referred to as an “important White artist,” but rather as an important artist. His or her art is not called “White art,” it’s simply called “art.” However, when an African-American artist creates art, his or her work is often labeled as “Black art,” relegating the work to one mere color: black which is considered to be the absence of light.
Anderson lowering Wilson’s level of importance as an artist, by singularizing it to one mere ethnic group, is not unlike the lowering in the physical positioning of the emancipated slave in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Bruno Schmitz’ design of the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Monument may have been intended to be a celebration of emancipation, resultant of the Civil War which the monument commemorates, but its positioning of the emancipated slave, in relation to the other figures in the monument, is a relegation of the Black man’s status, regardless of whether it was so designed deliberately or subconsciously. Whether Schmitz’ composition was simply a realistic rendering of the social status of Black men at the time, or a deliberate attempt to subliminally manipulate streams of bigoted thought into the mindset of America, thus preserving our great nation’s racist ideologies, is a question that remains unanswered.
Another series of question which the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument may provoke is, “And what about the status of the Black woman? What is her standing in society? Does she even exist? Why is she not commemorated, particularly when her role in society has been so important throughout the centuries?”
For generations, Black women have been systematically exploited — from their perpetually being raped by White men, which began before the Middle Passage — to the sexual imagery of the Blaxploitation film era where denigrating comments flung from mouths of Black male actors through ears of their Black actress counterparts, to the minds of attentive Black and White audiences — to the prolific rap music of today where lyrics are pervasively stained with Black men, referencing Black women as “bitches” and “ho’s”.
The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument does not commemorate the Black woman, who before emancipation, was forced to serve her master’s family and satisfy his sexual appetite, forced to toil in fields, without pay, for the benefit of her oppressor. The monument does not eulogize the Black woman who nursed her slave master’s White and Mulatto children, gave birth to a multitude of descendants who, for centuries, were also forced to labor without pay, so that White society could flourish.
Where would our great nation be, were it not for the womb of the Black woman?
And yet, the Black woman stands without commemoration. She is not memorialized, at least not in Indianapolis. She is not shown to be appreciated by society. Nor is she represented as being loved and cherished by a Black man, as are many Black women in reality, including me.
Instead it is the relationship between a Black man and a White woman which is publically memorialized in Indianapolis. It is a relationship which reflects a phenomenon throughout American society, where the imagery of a union between a Black man and a Black woman is often omitted from public viewing.
In the media, there is a dearth in the representation of Black women being loved by, or even pared with, Black men. Black women are commonly portrayed to live in households devoid of Black men. The omission of unions between Black men and Black women plagues academia and the arts as well. Black professionals who succeed in the mainstream are often those whose spouses or partners are not Black.
In the visual arts, for example, if one takes a look at the relatively nominal group of Black artists who have reached a status of fame or notoriety, one finds very few heterosexual African-American men, and even fewer heterosexual African-American women, whose spouses or partners are also Black. Within this minute group of famous Black visual artists; there is a preponderance of gay men; individuals of African birth or parentage; and those who are romantically partnered with non-Black people. Absent from the limelight is the multitude of heterosexual Black artists whose romantic partners are also Black people.
The most celebrated African-American visual artists, today, are gay men. Mark Bradford, Kehinde Wiley, Greg Ligon, and Fred Wilson are among the select group. Of the aforementioned men, two (Bradford and Wilson) were awarded the MacArthur Genius grant. Such a prestigious honor is an indicator of the magnitude of success which these Black gay American male artists have achieved. Very few visual artists, White or Black have ever been awarded the MacArthur Genius prize. This accomplishment makes Mark Bradford and Fred Wilson very important artists, not just very important “Black artists.”
The list of Black heterosexual visual artist who are lauded in mainstream America, and whose romantic partners are not Black, is extensive, relative to the very small number or Black visual artists who have reached such fame. They include Kara Walker, Bettye Saar, Alison Saar, Charles Gaines, Edgar Arceneaux, Joe Lewis, Henry Taylor, and Maria Magdalena Pons, among others. This phenomenon is reflected in the faculty of art academies and the curatorial staff of museums. One such example can be found in the Hammer Museum, where, currently, none of its curatorial staff is Black, and where the only two Black artists presently listed in the museum’s Artist Council are men whose spouses are not Black (Charles Gaines and Edgar Arceneaux).
Why are unions between Black men and Black women not publically sanctioned in American society? More specifically, why are they not endorsed in the visual arts?
Was Fred Wilson’s proposal of metaphorically “extracting” the Black man from the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Monument appealing to the project’s White supporters, because it removed the seduction and sexual prowess of the Black man from the White woman? Was the proposal appealing to its Black supporters because it liberated the Black man from its stereotypical roll of being dependently paired with a White woman? Does the cancellation of the construction of Fred Wilson’s E. Pluribus Unum monument indicate that Indianapolis is not prepared to see the public image of a Black man unattached to a White woman?
These are questions for which there are many and no answers.
When answering to questions concerning the reason for cancelling the construction of Fred Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum monument, Brian Payne (President of the CICF) articulated in a prepared statement,
“Our intention was to be inclusive and commission artists of color, including Fred Wilson. Regretfully, this proposed work has inflamed a number of long-standing sensitivities within our African-American community.
We can now move forward together to create a new public art/memorial project for the Cultural Trail for which we can all be proud—which has always been our intent at CICF.”
I personally would like to have seen the construction of Fred Wilson’s monument come to fruition. I support the artist’s vision that through “extracting” the Black figure from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, repositioning him, and replacing the broken shackles in his hand with a quilted banner composed of flags from the African Diaspora; the figure would be transformed from a subordinate former slave to a victorious Black man who carries no indicators of past enslavement. I would, however, hope that the artist researched whether any of the flags are the creations of the oppressive colonialist who occupied these African nations. Knowing the complexity and depth of Fred Wilson’s work, it is safe to assume that he did indeed research this. Finally, I would encourage Fred Wilson to consider commemorating the Black woman in future public art.