“All together one?

”: An Exploration of Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum Slavery memorials have been controversial since the immediate aftermath of the civil war when sculptors, bureaucrats and activists argued over how to best represent the “peculiar institution” in stone. In Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves art historian Kirk Savage documents the scores of monuments to emancipation that sprung up in the late 19th century, and the ways in which they reified the childlike, dependant and degraded stereotypes of African-Americans. They aesthetically inscribed onto the public landscape the role African Americans would play in the newly forming post-war polity: they would be supplicant, inferior, marginal, servile. Savage tries to tackle this at times amorphous link between aesthetics and politics – how are our notions of beauty reflections of racism and how does racism create our notions of beauty? To what degree do representations of race determine the way we read race onto the bodies around us? To what degree did sculpture and monument place racial hierarchies in stone through representations of black and white bodies? These questions all re-emerge in a particularly charged fashion when discussing contemporary public monuments to slavery. Recently Fred Wilson, a conceptual artist, generated a large and still unresolved controversy in Indianapolis with his piece E Pluribus Unum, a sculpture that visually comments on one of the more egregious post civil war monuments. Fred Wilson believes that public art should generate engagement, and create a new way of seeing the embedded politics within our material and built environment. The African American community of Indianapolis however, or at least some particularly vocal members within that community, argued for an opposite approach. Let the past be past, they insist, dredging it back up will only do us harm. This particular controversy raises a series of questions that we, as public humanists must engage. Should the purpose of monuments and memorials be to generate critical conversation and open up dialogue about history? Or to provide a resolution (a closure) that the public may desperately need1? Fred Wilson burst onto the art scene with his 1992 exhibit Mining the Museum at the Baltimore Maryland historical society. In this exhibit he remixed their historical materials, using juxtaposition to reveal the absences and silences within the archives. His work since then has continued with this theme – rearranging objects on display to reveal the embedded power dynamics within museums and our physical environment. His goal is to “excavate…the site of institutional racism” and through the rearrangement of archival materials “bring to light a history and a cultural presence that have been buried beneath layers of neglect and deliberate exclusion.”2 E Pluribus Unum was his next project in this vein – an attempt to do with monuments what he’s already done with museums – reveal the ways in which they are a reflection of ideological and institutional power. His piece is a response to the Soldiers and Sailors monument located prominently in the center of downtown Indianapolis. After a visit years ago he noticed both the supplicating image of the slave (the only black image on a monument in a city filled with monuments) and the strange way the monument was both venerated and ignored. During
1

There is a slippage in this paper between three distinctive categories: memorial, monument, and public art. In this case however, Wilson’s piece inhabits a strange hybrid place between the three because it is a piece of public art commenting on a monument which in so doing memorializes and comments on slavery.
2

Halle, Halle and Wilson Fred. “Mining the Museum.” Grand Street, No 44 (1993). Pp 151-172, 170.

his interview at Brown he described how “at Christmas time they light it up with Christmas lights as if it was a tree and I just thought they’re really not seeing this thing.” E Pluribus Unum is an attempt to get residents of the city to SEE this thing and the power dynamics it embodies, and to intervene. The resulting sculpture is not supposed to be a representation of African Americans today but rather a re-doing of that recently emancipated figure. He’s copied the supplicating, debased black figure from a 1902 civil war monument and reoriented him so that instead of helplessly reaching his recently unshackled arms upward, he is instead leaning forward and reaching out into the future. His outstretched arms hold a flag that represents the African diaspora. As Wilson explains it in a public forum: “I’m not going to change his form it’s going to be as if he got up off the living rock, as if he stepped away, as if he wanted to be out of that context and say something to a contemporary world…to ask the question and to sort of look towards the future of other possibilities of who to…who is being memorialized and who’s in the city.”3 His hope is that the new image will be installed nearby the other image so that casual passersby will make connections between the two and through the juxtaposition think about the embodied power dynamics within “monumental” space. His goal is to generate a productive form of cognitive dissonance. As he explains: “when I do a project it’s not about answering those questions, it about making those questions visible for others to answer.” In this way his sculpture could not deviate more from the original “soldiers and sailors” monument and its post civil war brethren. Those monuments were an attempt to create a newly formed national identity, to close off questions about the nature of a new body politic that included blacks, to ease anxieties for a country recently torn by civil war. In this way his sculpture defies the working premises behind monuments in general: closure, comfort, easy solidarity. The African American community is by no means unified in its critique of the proposed sculpture. Some oppose the sculpture itself, some the process through which it was commissioned, and others support it. Everyone seems to agree that this debate is particularly charged because there’s a feeling of scarcity: in a city with so few black images, each one counts. The controversy in its most simple form is between those who believe that reminders of slavery are humiliating and shameful, and those who find inspiration from this legacy. The opposition is lead by Leroy Robinson (a school board member and longtime educator) and state representative Bill Crawford, who both argue that this new image will not challenge old stereotypes but reify them. In the scathing editorial that kicked off this controversy Leroy Robinson said “[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,” and “…the newly commissioned E Pluribus Unum passes on another negative image from one generation to the next, to help further supplant the notion that even with a African-American in the White House, we still have a long way to go.4 Crawford picked up on this theme earlier this year in an interview with Studio 360’s Kurt Anderson "As long as we keep looking back to what we were… we are never going to be what we ought to be and what we're going to be… We can
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http://www.indyculturaltrail.org/images-and-video.html http://www.indianapolisrecorder.com/opinion/article_d22cf9f9-c01d-5e6d-a787-96fc64a1f952.html

afford to buy our own shoes, our own pants, we can buy our own shirts now. We’ve come from slavery actually to the promised land with the election of an African American male as the CEO of the most powerful nation in the world.”5 This argument is inherently contradictory – it both claims that we live in a post-racial society and expresses profound fear about future racism, discrimination, and ongoing structural inequality. But the underlying message is clear: ‘we need more positive representations before we can begin to engage and re-read past stereotypes.’ Crawford and Robinson both argue that further associations between contemporary African Americans and historical images of abnegation can only do harm. In a society which values independence and success above all else, associations with slavery mean losing the public relations war. Others within the black community have countered this argument – asserting that remembering slavery can be empowering, not disempowering. Carleton Waterhouse a Professor of Law at Indiana University explains, “Much of the discussion has been about how a "slave image" will make some people feel. The strong implication has been that images or monuments of freed or enslaved Africans are not inspirational but shameful…why should I or anyone be ashamed of the millions of enslaved Africans who made the United States of America possible?”6 All of these arguments attest to the present-ness of slavery, and the deep and profound emotions generated by images of the past. However, in the end, it seems like the resistance to E Pluribus Unum might have more to do with city politics than aesthetic politics or even the politics of slavery. Wilson is an outsider, there was very little representation from black community organizations on the “cultural trail” committee, and there wasn’t much of a forum for public comment or feedback. In fact when Wilson appears on the local black community radio show “Afternoons with Amos,” Amos Brown says quite baldly “I’m gonna show the cultural trail the way you really moderate today…” implying that the real frustrations lie not with the design itself but the process surrounding it.7 Additionally, some of the biggest boosters of this project work for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which recently laid off a number of museum workers, many of them black. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are so few images of African Americans in this city known for its monuments, that each one feels crucial. As Amos Brown states in the local black paper, “The problem is 108 years after the only African-American statue image (of a slave) was placed downtown, our African-American community believes it’ll be another 108 years before more Black public art will be financed here.”8 There’s been a bit of a détente between Wilson and the black community but it still seems doubtful that the sculpture will happen. According to Amos Brown, most people at these forums think the sculpture is interesting and even important, but shouldn’t be in such a prominent or permanent place. This type of conceptual work is for art museums, they argue, not public squares. On the streets the war of images is far too dangerous and the stakes far too high to
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http://www.studio360.org/2011/aug/19/public-art-vs-public-indianapolis/ http://fredwilsonindy.blogspot.com/2011/08/beyond-guilt-and-shame-sculpture-of.html#more

http://praiseindy.com/daily-bread/amosbrown/audio-amos-interviews-fred-wilson-designer-of-culturaltrail-slave-statue/
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http://www.indianapolisrecorder.com/opinion/article_60f824ad-b364-5e26-a5dc-75636e157cf7.html

tolerate this type of ambiguity.

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