Rapidly organized outrage, online condemnation and protests have made the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis reconsider installation of a two-story gallows structure based, in part, on the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota.
Protests started last Friday, May 26, outside the fence surrounding the closed sculpture garden, awaiting what was to be its June 3 grand reopening. By Saturday, though, center Executive Director Olga Viso announced that “Scaffold,” the creation of Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant, would be dismantled.
In a statement, she wrote, “I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others. Prompted by the outpouring of community feedback, the artist Sam Durant is open to many outcomes including the removal of the sculpture. He has told me, ‘It’s just wood and metal—nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.’”
Intentionally or not, the idea that this horrific history of the Dakota people, embodied in a re-creation of the infamous mass gallows originally erected a mere 80 miles to the south, would stand in the area along with a giant spoon holding a cherry, an oversized blue rooster and mini-golf course rubbed salt into a 155-year-old wound.
The two-story structure by Durant, a non-Native artist whose work often centers on anti-racist themes, is a collection of re-created gallows from the largest U.S. government-sanctioned mass execution (the hanging of 38 Dakota men on the day after Christmas 1862 after the U.S. Dakota War) to the execution gallows of Saddam Hussein. It was commissioned for a 2012 art event, documenta, in Germany, shown here on YouTube, and was also shown in 2014 in Scotland. Durant describes it as intended to open “the difficult histories of the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States, ranging from lynchings to mass incarceration to capital punishment.”
This week it was to join 18 other new works for a total of 60 art pieces within the 12-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in the city’s downtown. The garden was to reopen on June 3, but that opening has been delayed until June 10.
Peaceful protests continue at the site, where the partially erected “Scaffold” can be seen. A website, Not Art 38 + 2, and a social media condemnation at #Takeitdown also contributed to the art center’s rethinking of the installation.
On Not Art 38 + 2, there are updates on the situation, a printable response to questions about the Dakota 38 + 2 explaining Mni-Sota as Dakota ancestral lands and about the mass hangings plus two executions that followed.
There is also a message from Dakota elders announcing a meeting tonight (May 30) at 7 p.m. at All My Relations Gallery, 1414 Franklin Ave., to decide, among other things, which 12 elders might meet directly with Walker Art Center officials on Wednesday morning (May 31), how and what ceremonies might be involved in the dismantling of the structure and how to include Native artists and children in that removal.
The message also asked for individuals not to speak on behalf of the community and for no press coverage of tonight’s gathering.
“We welcome all Dakota who come with a good heart, with respect for the ancestors, the elders, our traditional ways and our sacred sites for the opening prayer and announcements. No press please. This is only the first of many meetings to help create a process of healing and to help educate through Dakota truth-telling of our own history.”
Many have expressed disappointment at the Walker Art Center’s purchase of the artwork.
“It’s maddening,” he’s quoted. “How can a major institution not see that?”
On Facebook and at #Takeitdown, Ho-Chunk writer Rob Callahan, who has worked for the Walker, explained his frustration and why he will not work with the center again:
“My grandmother once told me the settlers left the original gallows partly intact as a monument, and it stayed there in the center of town until erosion finally destroyed it, and that she used to see it when she was in Mankato as a child. I don’t know how much of that was a tall tale, but I know her parents and grandparents lived through the conflict, the exile and the mass hanging. I know that affected her all of her life.
“I can’t imagine what she would say if she had lived to see me working for people who bought a scale replica of the thing and put it on prominent display on public land.”
Ashley Fairbanks, White Earth Anishinaabe, writing “Genocide and mini-golf in the Walker Sculpture Garden,” for City Pages, described her anger as she joined protesters last Friday.
“Watching elders see that piece, my heart broke. Watching babies make signs, I didn’t want them to know this was the world we live in. I felt hate in my heart. I’ve grown so tired of white people stealing our joy and our time and our energy and not understanding our rage. … White people drove by in their Range Rovers and asked what the Dakota 38 + 2 was, and indigenous people bore the burden of explaining our history, our pain, our trauma to the gentry of Minneapolis. It wasn’t Sam Durant explaining. It wasn’t Walker Art Center director Olga Viso. It was people whose relatives walked up the stairs of those gallows, singing together. Who died with a simultaneous drop to the sound of white applause.”
Both Viso, who is Cuban American, and Durant have expressed regret and hope that this incident will lead to an opportunity to educate themselves and others.
In a statement published Saturday, Durant wrote: “In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience, I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people. I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness. I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.
“My work was created with the idea of creating a zone of discomfort for whites, your protests have now created a zone of discomfort for me. In my attempt to raise awareness I have learned something profound, and I thank you for that. Can this be a learning experience for all of us, the Walker, other institutions and artists and larger society? I am open and ready to work together with you.”
In her City Pages column, Fairbanks is doubtful more education will help. “White people will never understand the cellular level of pain that the death of our people evokes. How could they? They don’t carry that trauma in their bones. Their ancestors were the ones pulling the lever and buying commemorative postcards of lynchings, not the ones swinging. They cannot understand the hurt we feel.”
Still, Dakota elders already are planning, yet again, how to help educate non-Natives whose ancestors may have caused such a painful history and, yet again, how to help heal their own Dakota community from fresh wounds.