Trailing Culture



Five finalists vying for the latest art spot on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A legacy of Gene & Marilyn Glick were announced recently, and it struck me as interesting.

It marks the fulfillment of a promise to begin to represent the contribution and culture of African-Americans in Indianapolis, in the wake of the debacle surrounding artist Fred Wilson's proposed E Pluribus Unum statue.

I know this may be a sore spot for many, but I, for one, would like to thank Wilson for pointing out a very irritating and uncomfortable fact about our city, just as he did for Baltimore. He quite accurately showed us that the only representation of an African-American among all the statuary in the downtown area for many years was a freed slave hidden in plain sight on the western side of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

Now lately this underrepresentation has only partially been ameliorated by the inclusion of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Glick Peace Walk on the Cultural Trail. And the debate Wilson's proposal caused, especially in the African-American community, may be worth more than actually erecting the piece. The dustup reminded all of us to be more cognizant of who we represent and how we represent ourselves with each work of public art we commission.

In doing so, you always run the risk of choosing something from the committee of experts that fails to win public approval, or you crowdsource input that waters down the true impact of the piece. And so far, from the way the public has been consulted and engaged and from who's on the committee making the final decision, the powers that be have trudged successfully across that rickety bridge.

I've perused each of the proposals, artist profiles and maquettes, and here are my quick thoughts and preferences:

1.Vinnie Bagwell, Yonkers, New York: The strongest element of this piece comes from its depiction of the griot, "a repository of oral tradition" as Bagwell puts it. She has found an embodiment of the community's culture and tradition. Though the images chosen on the dress could be more representative of Indianapolis people and milestones.


2.William Rasdell and Atsu Kpotufe, Indianapolis: While the only finalist from here, Rasdell is an established local artist, and his proposal is the most site-specific of the lot, paying homage to Indy's rich musical heritage.


3.Michael Puryear, Shokan, New York: The simplicity of this one really struck me. The two chairs, one in America and the other on Africa's Slave Coast force a dialogue between present-day Americans and their African ancestors. But given what we've learned about some of the aversion in this city to discussions of a slave past, this piece doesn't hold out much hope for a warm embrace.


4.Bernard Williams, Chicago: I looked at the style of this work, and it instantly reminded me of that crumbling mural on the Monon Trail by BRICS. The artist is from out of town, so he could benefit from some better research and input on the culture of the city. I do like that he's creating a sculpture that would catch the sun and produce interesting shadows.


5.Reginald Adams, Houston: While there's great merit in depicting with a "wall of greats" those who have contributed to your culture, you run the risk of excluding someone.


But more importantly, I'll be interested to see what African-Americans in Indy think, recognizing that those opinions will likely be as varied as trying to build consensus among the city's Slovenian, German and Hispanic citizens, each of whom could use some public art as well.

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