Thursday, June 5, 2008

Racist Murals a Cultural Barometer of Boise (and America)?

The controversial mural at the Ada County Statehouse of a Native American being lynched is obviously racist and seems to call out for an 'intervention' from indigenous artists. Don't get me wrong, because I don't take this stance lightly. As professor of Art, one of my most steadfast tenets for nurturing the creative process with young artists has to do with a freedom of expression and non-censorship. This is because one of the very critical roles that artists play is that of a chronicler, or someone who offers an interpretation of the times in which they live. If you look at the history of humanity, you may notice a pattern in which artists are quite literally the last ones able to offer commentary on issues of social relevance because everyone else had been effectively silenced. A critic could say that the above proposal to intervene could be interpreted as an act of censorship and therefore hypocritical. My response would be that the ultimate act of censorship is to deny a voice to the people that are being wronged (present tense emphasized) with this mural, and it would be an act of poetic justice to have it altered by indigenous artists.

The irony is that this mural is a chronicle of the times in which it was made. American apartheid was in full swing; there were many sets of laws for people of different races, including segregationist laws and the fact that Native Americans only fairly recently succeeded in the fight for the right of American Citizenship (1924). America had a very clear doctrine and policy of discrimination up until very recently. Citizenship did not necessarily translate to the right to vote (and an entire myriad of other things, like the right to own property); this was extended by individual states, and many did not allow Native Americans the right to vote from around the 1940's to 1960's (one source says Utah was the last in 1956, and another source says it was New Mexico in 1962). Racism drove the decision to block Native Americans the right to vote. When you stand back and look at the bigger picture of American identity, wasn't it supposed to be the one country in the world that epitomized freedoms and equal opportunity for all? America was in fact a country that more resembled apartheid South Africa than a country that represented the ideals it so proudly trumpeted. This is not cynicism; it is an unadorned fact not much open to interpretation.

Knowing all of the above puts the mural into a cultural and historical perspective and serves as a powerful reminder that America was an apartheid country. The question is, do we want to brag about it? Do we want our children to see this part of American racism and have it as a part of the current and future indoctrination that they receive from our public places? I would put forth the notion that the mural dehumanizes Native Americans because of their race, and for that reason alone, it should be altered. If I had my choice, I'd advocate to have some Native American art students and artists do an 'intervention' with the mural, armed with paints, stencils and other transfer materials. They would be free to have their way with the mural, but yet be thoughtful and progressive about it. I would advocate for keeping the mural in place with the 'art intervention' on top of it. This could serve the purpose of keeping the mural intact underneath the new art. How would this be accomplished? Like I mentioned above, the artists would need to have the freedom with how they interpret it themselves; I certainly would not direct it. Maybe another option could be the act of painting over it, where the ritual is what it could be about. What about simply painting over it with the sacred colors of the people who lived here (in the Boise area) for thousands of years?

One of the commonalities of a lot of American indigenous artists is that they are very community minded and go out of their way to involve communities in their art making philosophies and practices. Leaving the racist mural as-is would be bad and a poor reflection on America at the start of the 21st Century. On one level this is from an art professor with decades of research experience; on another level it is from an artist with progressive ideals of his own (my own art is about transformation and healing); and yet another level is simply from a person concerned about how and what we teach children, which asks the straightforward question, "What's the right thing to do?"

The above was published in the June 4th, 2008 issue of the Boise Weekly. Anna Demetriades (a former student of mine, and a very bright young writer & artist) wrote the essay The Fine Line Between Art and History, in which she asked me for input to her article.


Tim said...


I read this article while waiting for my wife to finish her shopping in the local mall. Really great suggestion. Not sure if it will ever get implemented, but great idea nonetheless.

Hope you're having a great summer.

Tim Tuttle

Larry McNeil said...

Hi Tim,

I'm not sure if my proposal will ever get implemented either. My philosophy about stuff like this is that nothing will ever change unless people are put on notice that the issue is certainly not ok for the status quo. I've got too many things going on to take this on as a crusade, but can be vocal about my take on it. The murals make it seem like we are a community of morons, about as enlightened as a bag of hammers, which we know is not true (well... for the most part anyway).

I hope you're able to get some photography done this summer. I've been out shooting with a little G9 infrared digital camera that makes really cool b&w photos.

take care,