Silence and Civility at the Talking Wall: Race and Public Art
This week artist Bernard Williams’ Talking Wall was installed on Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail. Williams’ work sits along Blackford Street on the IUPUI campus, sandwiched between two parking decks in the midst of what was once an African-American neighborhood. Talking Wall collects a series of symbols representing that African-American heritage, emerging after a long discussion over African-American public art stewarded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), Arts Council of Indianapolis (ACI), and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC). On an otherwise non-descript stretch of the trail the work aspires to illuminate African-American heritage and evoke a historical landscape lost to most people’s memory. For a piece that ambitiously celebrates its aspiration to promote conversation, though, it remains somewhat unclear exactly what sort of discussions a phalanx of planners hope to secure from Talking Wall. Talking Wall emerged from a tortured ethnographic failure of planners to fathom African Americans’ investment in public artistic representations of African America. That failure and the subsequent effort to cast the subsequent Talking Wall community art project as reconciliation and civil discussion may frame a more interesting insight into privilege and the color line than any artwork.
The Arts Council of Indianapolis and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee expressly tout Talking Wall and their role in its development since 2013 as “a thoughtful investigation of who we are as a city and a community” that will “represent the Indianapolis African American community in an insightful, creative, and positive manner.” This tone poses Talking Wall as a mechanism of reconciliation aspiring to encourage civility and collective pride, and from the outset the project aspired to tell African America’s story through the city’s best-known African-American historical figures. The Request for Proposals (Word format) for the project specified that “the piece will reflect the proud and distinct history of the African American community in central Indiana. From the numerous world-renowned musicians like Wes Montgomery who put Indianapolis’ jazz heritage of Indiana Avenue on the map to entrepreneur and philanthropist Madame C.J. Walker, to sports legends like the Negro Baseball League’s Oscar Charleston and cyclist Major Taylor, the city’s African American heritage is rich.” Bernard Williams’ Talking Wall proposal and the piece that now sits on Blackford Street includes symbols representing all of these figures.
Nearly nobody celebrating Talking Wall has acknowledged the contentious process that preceded the new artwork. After the CICF commissioned artist Fred Wilson for a Cultural Trail work in 2007, Wilson developed a design based on an emancipated captive on the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument (the story of Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum has been detailed in Modupe Labode’s 2012 Unsafe Ideas, Public Art, and E Pluribus Unum: An Interview with Fred Wilson, with other coverage in Modern Art Notes, Kirk Savage’s blog, and my own blog). In 1897 German sculptor Rudolf Schwarz was commissioned to complete “War” and “Peace” statuary groupings for the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument at the center of Indianapolis, and nestled in the Peace side is an emancipated African American, kneeling and holding up broken chains. Wilson proposed recasting the emancipated captive, but in 2010 community members objected to the 19th-century racial aesthetics in Wilson’s work and questioned if his work was a sufficiently positive and fair representation of African America.
When the Wilson project was cancelled in 2011, CICF President and CEO Brian Payne concluded that “this proposed art piece caused many people a great sense of anxiety and pain,” but he left planners’ own communication failures with African Americans unexamined: “We really did try to do a lot of community outreach. . . . A lot of people really didn’t really want to engage until it became a controversy.” After the cancellation of the project, Wilson himself acknowledged that “I think many people saw it as something being put on them once again. I think people shut down, because they felt like they had not been involved with the conversation―which, it sounds like to me, from a lot of the people I have spoken to, fell in line with how things are done in Indianapolis, beyond art. So the project itself, at that point, could not be seen; there was no way to have a discussion, because it became emblematic of relations in Indianapolis.” For Wilson, the failure to communicate about art in the community repeated a common city pattern of making decisions about African American Indianapolis without African-American voices.
Reggie Jones, a member of the Citizens Against Slave Image group opposing the Wilson statue, argued that the Wilson design lacked “dignity and respect,” and the Indianapolis Recorder indicated that if E Pluribus Unum was erected “Jones said he would have destroyed the statue and was prepared to face the consequences.” Yet Jones underscored that his opposition reflected the failure to share the proposed work with African Americans, with the Indianapolis Recorder observing that “he has seen decisions made that affect Blacks the most, but excludes the involvement of Blacks in the process.” That failure to communicate with African-American stakeholders over a public artwork repeated a long history of city leaders launching segregated school systems, urban renewal projects, and massive highway displacements with nearly no substantive African-American voices.
Indeed, much of the dispute over Wilson’s project was not simply about the aesthetic representations of Blackness or enslavement; rather, they fixed on the seemingly arbitrary and exclusive process of representing African America in public space without any substantive African-American input. The ruins of the Wilson project were used to develop a new African-American art project to be stewarded by a Cultural Arts Committee collective directed by the Arts Council of Indianapolis and GIPC (typically referred to as “gypsy”). GIPC was born in 1965 as a reincarnation of Progressive causes allying a variety of business and development interests with the city government. Indianapolis has had a long history of volunteer public service allied with a host of business causes and City Hall, and GIPC continues that history of private sector voices serving as a quasi-political sounding board acting in coordination with power brokers including the Mayor’s office.
These new handlers apparently saw Talking Wall as a forward-thinking piece that constructs African-American history as a testament to dignity, perseverance, and success and invites the whole city to proudly share that heritage. Talking Wall celebrates some of Indianapolis’ best-known historical personalities, with Madam CJ Walker, Marshall “Major” Taylor, and Wes Montgomery represented on the piece; symbols also represent the Indianapolis Clowns, a soldier from the 28th Indiana Infantry Regiment, the North Star that symbolically guided the Underground Railroad, African symbols, and African-American educator Mary Cable. This profusion of symbols aspires to spark reflection and conversation, and such discussion could potentially evoke history as a living open wound in which longstanding racist indignities reach into contemporary life; at Talking Wall, though, the work strongly gravitates toward reconciliation. That may reflect many peoples’ feelings that the Wilson project’s failures should be left in the past so Talking Wall can celebrate a proud African-American heritage and secure community consensus.
It is unreasonable to expect Talking Wall to shoulder the burden of resolving Indianapolis’ racist history, but even the artwork’s “positive” historical figures were compelled to persevere in the face of racism. For instance, Marshall “Major” Taylor is often fabled for “breaking the color barrier” in cycling and winning the world sprint championship in 1899, but he felt compelled to leave Indiana in the face of segregated racing and died destitute in 1932. Madam Walker likewise left Indianapolis to escape persistent racism, and the ruins of her Indianapolis house were being excavated blocks away from Talking Wall during the piece’s dedication. Talking Wall alludes to Walker’s activism with a raised steel fist rising out of a comb, invoking the fist as a symbol of “power, pride, and strength.” However, Walker’s measured, persistent and dignified advocacy for African Americans in the early 20th century came in the face of a distinctive if not unique confluence of patriarchy and racism, which is perhaps not symbolically captured by a fist or interchangeable with contemporary anti-racist activism.
A broad conversation about African-American heritage beyond Talking Wall should celebrate dignity, perseverance, and genuine success, but it is compelled to acknowledge the conscious complicity of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, realtors, and neighborhood associations in two centuries of anti-Black racism. Art along the Cultural Trail can potentially speak from the public ruins of Indianapolis’ near-Westside and deliver a damning indictment of what American cities like Indianapolis erased only to now celebrate that heritage and perhaps even hope for symbolic forgiveness. Talking Wall shines light on an African-American experience that should inspire humility and hopefully contribute to a broader public accounting of color line history that situates African-American heritage and the city’s structural inequalities firmly and perhaps uncomfortably in the present.
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