City of Minneapolis censors public art coming to Nicollet Mall

Artist, poet, activist, aerialist, and actress Junauda Petrus.

Artist, poet, activist, aerialist, and actress Junauda Petrus.

When Junauda Petrus wrote the poem "A Prayer for Pussies,” she envisioned it as an homage to all the strong, revolutionary women who work to make the world a better place. She was one of four poets selected to contribute text for a piece of public art, a sculpture, on Nicollet Mall. Now Petrus says the city of Minneapolis has censored her work, and refuses to include the piece.

The project is part of the redesign of Nicollet Mall, which includes a number of new public art commissions. Arizona-based sculptor Blessing Hancock is creating large illuminated metal lantern sculptures, which will feature engraved poems by Minneapolis poets, including three poems from Petrus.

Though she did give the city an alternate poem, Petrus was troubled. “It’s not just that I want my poem [out there],” Petrus says. “I wanted to elevate the conversation.”

When Petrus was contacted by Mary Altman, director of public art for the city, she learned that the decision came down to her use of three words: pussy, coochie, and clitoris. The poem:

"A Prayer for Pussies"

Grown women know that feeling.
You a little girl under all that skin.
All of that life and holding back.
All of that gray coochie hair
And planted placentas under the tree the kids climb,
when hiding from spankings.
Under piles of unpaid bills and expired lottery tickets.
In your shadow sits that girl within.
Wise and wild.
Quiet and unforgiving.
Indignant and quick.
Clitoris driven.
An emotional wreck with soulful perfection.
Plotting on wildness
You start thinking:
Remember when I was all one hot heat?
One red ferocious flash?
One smooth sweet licorice?
One free flying unknown?

“Right now, there’s an extreme attack by men who are being put in power to make huge decisions over women’s bodies,” says Petrus of her poem and its censorship. “People who do not have pussies are grabbing pussies and are being put into the White House.”

“While this poem submitted by Junauda Petrus for the project was strong and thought provoking, it didn’t meet our guidelines for the project,” states Altman in a written statement.

“[Public art] involves a broad range of people and communities. Nicollet Mall is a destination for people of all ages, including young children,” media relations coordinator Sarah McKenzie explained when City Pages inquired as to which guidelines made Petrus’ poem not qualify for inclusion.

Alondra Cano, who is currently hoping to find a home for Petrus’ poem somewhere in the Ninth Ward, takes issue with the idea that the poem is inappropriate for children.

“Who gets to decide?” she asks. “For some parents, that’s perfectly fine. And there are a lot of young people on Nicollet Mall who connect with that reality and those terms are something they use in their everyday life.”

Cano believes that constantly tailoring artistic projects to mainstream audiences means fewer chances to hear from marginalized groups. “This is the conversation we should be having. That is the whole point of public art,” she says.

Cano says that choosing to censor the poem violates a different public art criteria, to value artists and artistic processes. “I think the city did not abide by our own criteria in that we did not value the artist and her artistic process,” Cano says.

The Loft Literary Center is also standing by Petrus. According to a contract between the nonprofit organization and the city, edits to the poems were supposed to come primarily from Hancock, with light copy edits coming from the Loft. The contract doesn’t mention an editorial role that city staff would play in shaping the poems at all.

“While the Loft respects the unique constraints that relate to art in public spaces, and thank Mary Altman for her efforts pursuing the poem’s appearance on the mall, we are deeply disappointed the poem won’t appear on a lantern in this installation,” the Loft’s statement reads. “The Loft is committed to artistic self-expression, and we believe Junauda’s poem reflects everything poetry should be: artful, necessary, vital, challenging, and healing.”

Petrus has also penned an open letter about the city’s censorship of the poem.

“I am indignant to this censorship by the city of Minneapolis, especially when there is a renaissance of elected, emboldened, and money-driven bigots who do not love this world like I do. I will not be silenced or confused while they are revered and bowed down to.”

For Petrus, art isn’t about making people feel good about themselves. “The reason I do art is to reflect truth and all the things that are about healing the world,” she says. With her poem, she hopes that she can help people rethink things. “I was interested in reflecting the truth of my heart.”