Friday, August 26, 2011


“The cultural trail is about positioning Indianapolis for the 21st century…, how does the Soldiers and Sailors Monument really relate to the 21st century?” Brian Payne, president Central Indiana Community Foundation that funds the Cultural Trail.

I want to offer my sincere thanks to Fred Wilson, the brilliant and subversive conceptual artist. Mr. Wilson, a New Yorker, born and bred, was invited to my hometown to come up with an artistic idea for the Cultural Trail. And did he ever!

After touring downtown Indianapolis and observing the number of monuments and memorials (Indianapolis is second only to the nation’s capital in its propensity to erect monuments), Mr. Wilson was struck by the fact that the only person of color in a monument was a newly freed slave in the Civil War commemoration on the Circle. Mr. Wilson, who specializes in drawing attention to racial inequities via his artistic reconfigurations and installations, decided to “free” this anonymous slave yet again. Wilson figuratively removed the slave from the Circle’s Civil War monument to give him a prominent place of his very own, atop a pedestal holding a flag. The unknown slave is still shirtless and shoeless, but his broken chains have been removed and he’s sitting up a bit. This is, after all, “a twenty-first century empowered African American.”

When Wilson presented his idea to the Curatorial Advisory Committee for the Cultural Trail, they accepted it without hesitation. And I understand that. After all, they commissioned a prominent and much-acclaimed African American artist to come up with a concept for their cultural trail; what effrontery it would have been to question his concept.

I interrupt here to point out that it appears Indianapolis is striving to emulate places like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston—attracting tourists, hosting a Super Bowl, and more important, keeping their young educated talent in town to give the city some pizzazz and help it to grow. If this city could just stop the “brain drain,” or even slow it down, perhaps we wouldn’t be seen as such a backward place and the talented young wouldn’t flee to other places. I’ve lived all around the country, including in several major cities, so I know how we are perceived from outside. I won’t repeat the responses I get when I tell people where I’m from, but I do recall a particularly stinging remark I read in a newspaper column. The writer said, “I stepped off the plane in Indianapolis and set my watch back twenty-five years.”

Back to the Cultural Trail. I noticed that the other art works on the Trail are mostly whimsical or symbolic; certainly not in any way controversial. Mr. Wilson says he intended his art to be in that same mode, but instead his decision to reproduce a slave to “be the first public art work dedicated to the African American community in Indianapolis’s downtown public art collection,” has stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. By the way, these are not Mr. Wilson’s words, but are taken from the Cultural Trail’s press release. Wilson had no idea his conceptual art was to be the city’s signal tribute to the African American community. Wilson’s intent was for it to be a “work of art and a catalyst for asking the question, ‘Why are there no other representations of African Americans in Indianapolis?’”(There is a sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. in a neighborhood park; however, Wilson was referring to downtown monuments.)

What an excellent question! Why are there no representations of African Americans who have contributed to Indianapolis? As a black woman who was born and reared in Indianapolis, and who considers herself knowledgeable and aware, especially regarding African American history and culture, I am ashamed to admit that I never considered that question until now. That is why I am grateful to Mr. Wilson.

I’ve never met Wilson, and only know him from what I’ve seen online, but I can’t get this imaginary scene out of my head of him in a discussion with his New York friends.

Wilson: “I actually proposed a gigantic permanent sculpture of a slave to be prominently displayed in downtown Indianapolis.”

Friends: “You’re kidding! What did they say?”

Wilson: “They went for it.”

Friends: “Are there any black people there?”

Wilson: “Oh yeah. Lots of black folks live there.”

Friends: “Well, black folk won’t stand for a sculpture of a slave in 2011!”

Wilson: “We’ll see. If the folks in charge want a slave sculpture, and the black folks allow it, then the world will know exactly where Indianapolis is coming from. I hope we have it ready for the Super Bowl.”

Wilson and friends: ROFL

Apparently, the answer to Brian Payne’s question is that in Indianapolis, African Americans will continue to be seen as slaves.

*The expression, “crossing the Rubicon” means to pass a point of no return. Indianapolis is at the Rubicon. We have yet to see whether or not the city will cross it. Or perhaps, the city is just a rube, being conned.