The controversy surrounding the visual art displayed at the Minnesota Capitol gets at the root of who we are as a state and a people. Culture is defined by the stories, beliefs, arts, and customs of a society. The depictions of Native Americans in the Capitol — submissively cowering toward Father Hennepin as he blesses the Mississippi River, peacefully signing treaties that in reality they were coerced into signing, and savagely burning down towns — create a narrative of Minnesota’s history that is not only outdated, but woefully offensive to the indigenous community.
“We all know that stories are very important; whose story is being told, and who is represented in the stories,” said Robert Lilligren, executive director of the Native American Community Development Institute, at an opening reception for “Reframe Minnesota: Art Beyond a Single Story,” currently on view at All My Relations and Two Rivers Galleries. “In the Native community, we value stories so greatly, and this show is an opportunity to reframe the conversation to add depth and authenticity to the stories being told throughout our state and in the State Capitol.”
Curated by Maggie Thompson and Taylor Payer, “Reframe Minnesota” is an artistic response to the current debate on the art displayed in the State’s Capitol, which is currently undergoing a renovation to be completed in 2017. Some advocates want the offensive artwork to be replaced by pieces that offer a more true reflection of Minnesota and its people.
It’s the first exhibit at either gallery to feature both Native and non-Native artists. “We felt it was extremely important for everyone who calls Minnesota their home to engage with issues of the Capitol art,” Payer says. The work currently on display at the Capitol “is extremely stereotypical and offensive to Native people, particularly the Dakota, whose land we are on.”
Payer added that the Capitol’s art was also offensive to another group: Minnesotans that aren’t represented at all. The murals were made in 1904, when 99 percent of the state was white. “We have a lot of immigrant populations and communities of color that are simply not represented in the images,” she says. The artwork also largely excludes depictions of women, who both then and now make up half the population.
The double exhibit is divided into art created by professionals, shown at All My Relations, and youth, featured at Two Rivers. Some pieces directly respond to the art displayed at the Capitol, others explore what kind of work would be more representative of Minnesota and its diverse communities.
Two paintings by Leslie Barlow at All My Relations illustrate the need for inserting alternative stories into the Capitol, creating a third space that exists outside of binary histories. In the painting January 19th, 2015, Barlow draws from a photograph she took while participating in a Black Lives Matter march. We see protesters of different races and backgrounds, one holding a fist in the air, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. sign is perched above them, blurred a bit so you can barely read it, and a helicopter hovers. The work critiques the tokenism white America has used in its remembrance of Dr. King, embracing his work as a symbol without implementing the message he strove to create.
Another painting, Of Other Paths (Heterotopia), references a term coined by Michele Foucault to describe spaces that have more layers than meet the eye. The self portrait features the artist’s own identity as a way disrupt outdated narratives.
In Jim Denomie’s painting Casino Sunrise, the Capitol building sits at the top of a hill, looming over a scene depicting horrors from a nightmare in Minnesota history. The piece is rich with Denomie’s signature crude eroticism and fearless truth-telling. Meanwhile Christian Pederson Behrends satirizes the Capitol in her paintings No Father Hennepins Allowed and The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux by having Native figures push Father Hennepin out of the frame and Ramsey get beat at a game of checkers.
Over at Two Rivers, youth from all over the state of Minnesota also addressed an alternative to Capitol art. In one drawing, ninth grader Malcolm Richards juxtaposes half of Prince’s face with that of a wolf.
When former Miss Minnesota Rachel Latuff, who is now a teacher at North Woods School in St. Louis County, saw one of Jacobs’ presentations, she employed it to create a curriculum that she uses with her students. It also helped create a curriculum used by teachers throughout the state.
While the debate about what stories the art at the Capitol tell is still underway, “Reframe Minnesota” offers a contemporary vision for how we look at our state’s history, how we see ourselves reflected in the art that represents us, and what we envision for the future.
"Reframe Minnesota: Art Beyond a Single Story" runs through September 16.