A sculpture, called Scaffold, that was being installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, has created such controversy, especially in Native communities, that it is going to be removed.
A little known episode in United States history was the Dakota War. A series of events led to conditions in which the Dakota were facing starvation, and not allowed to hunt outside defined boundaries. Armed conflict eventually occurred but didn’t last long. Afterwards, the largest mass execution by the United States, the hanging of 38 of the Dakota warriors at the same time, took place in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, on the order of Abraham Lincoln.
To promote healing and reconciliation related to that, the Dakota created a film, “Dakota 38”, in response to a vision that came to one of them in 2005. To make the story widely available, the film is distributed free of charge:
This sculpture was based upon that. Although it is difficult to believe, the artist, Sam Durant, didn’t talk with Native Americans about the sculpture. This is especially puzzling, since Mr. Durant talks about white supremacy as his motivation for creating the sculpture.
From the artist, Sam Durant:
I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations. Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to
understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people. I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness. I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.
My work was created with the idea of creating a zone of discomfort for whites, your protests have now created a zone of discomfort for me. In my attempt to raise awareness I have learned something profound and I thank you for that. Can this be a learning experience for all of us, the Walker, other institutions and artists and larger society? I look forward to meeting the Dakota Elders on Wednesday in Minneapolis, and am open and ready to work together.
Walker Art Center Executive Director Olga Viso said she anticipated a discussion about the nation’s use of capital punishment, and she regrets the pain that the sculpture has caused.
Durant’s sculpture raises complex questions about how contentious moments in history are remembered. It raises deeper questions still about how, why, by whom, and for whom. As an institution that champions the work of living artists, we also champion the freedom of expression extended to artists and audiences alike,” she said. “We recognize, however, that the siting of ‘Scaffold’ in our state, on a site that is only a short distance from Mankato, raises unique concerns. We recognize the decision to exhibit this work might cause some to question the Walker’s sensitivity to Native audiences and audiences in Minnesota more familiar with this dark history.