By Peter Gordon
Two local artists are taking a new approach to solving to the problem of controversial public art. Elizabeth James Perry, a local artist and member of the Wampanoag tribe, and Ekua Holmes, a Black artist from the Roxbury, are creating plant installations on the Museum of Fine Art’s Huntington Avenue grounds, which are home to Cyrus Dallin’s statue “Appeal to the Great Spirit.”
Perry’s installation, called “Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA,” will surround the nearly 8-foot pedestal of the statue with soil in which she will plant corn strands that will develop into corn plants in the growing season.
Holmes’ installation “Radiant Community” will plant 3,000 sunflowers on the east side of the MFA’s Huntington Avenue lawn. This part of her larger “Roxbury Sunflower Project,” which seeks to plant 10,000 sunflowers in the heart of historically Black Roxbury where the museum resides.
On June 22, both artists fielded questions in a webinar put on by the MFA. Where they were asked what it meant to them to be during this kind of work at this moment in time.
“We are looking at memorials, and public art installations in new ways with and we’re inviting the citizens of the city of Boston to have these conversations with us,” said Holmes. “And part of that is acknowledging these hidden histories, erased histories that have not been acknowledged on a street level, where a lot of learning takes place on the street when it isn’t in the classroom. So what kind of imagery do we really want to support?”
She made a distinction between this type of garden monument and a traditional one. With a garden you have to recommit to it every year, whereas with a statue, it is put in place permanently.
‘Once you put it up, people are loath to take it down, even if it no longer represents the values of the community,” she said.
“Part of my motivation for planting corn in Boston in the first place came from about a decade ago or so, when the Carcieri case was going through the courts,” said Perry, referring to a supreme court case from 2009 where the court ruled that the federal government could not take land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized and acquired land after 1934.
“It was really deeply affecting. And so the idea of creating visibility for Native people in an urban place seemed not just interesting, or creative or thought provoking, but I felt like it was crucial to our actual survival as a nation. And so that vision was actually born then. And it’s been really excellent to be able to see it through,” she said.
The statue, made by a white artist Dallin, was intended as a sympathetic portray of Native Americans. However, over the years it has drawn criticism as a patronizing statue and for portraying Indigenous people in a position of surrender. Furthermore, the figure contains tribal garb from several Native American nations, further cementing it has an offensive stereotype.
“This Indigenous figure is anonymous and unarmed, apart from any community and wearing an amalgamation of regalia – a Lakota style headdress, a necklace imitating Dine or Navajo squash blossom jewelry, moccasins that are not from any recognizable community,” said Layla Bermeo, an associate curator from the MFA, in a video made for the 2020 Indigenous People’s Day celebration. “He does not represent actual Indigenous peoples living in the early 20th century, but rather a vision indigeneity made by a white artist for white audiences.”
“When I look at Elizabeth’s project, and this sort of intervention, interruption of a piece that’s been problematic, I think about it as a potential way to address some of these issues,” Holmes said.
Visual representation is important to members of Native American tribes living in Massachusetts. Many describe feeling invisible because people living in the state don’t even realize that Indigenous people still live there.
“I mean, just the preconceived notion that where we’re savages and that we no longer live here. I mean, I think that’s the most offensive thing,” said Melissa Ferretti, a member of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe. “The truth is people just don’t realize that there are indigenous people living in their own community. We may have moved out of Plymouth Colony because we were literally under the boots of the pilgrims. But saying that we no longer exist? I mean, it couldn’t be any further from the truth. We’re actual descendants of the original peoples that were here.”
Corn is a sacred crop to the Wampanoag people, and Ferretti said she believes this is a interesting way to try to overcome the negative associations of “Appeal to the Great Spirit.”
“I can certainly say that’s a unique way to try to overshadow the statue,” she said.
Stephen Silliman, an anthropology professor at UMass Boston and member of the school’s Indigenous studies program, has taken notice of how Native people are marginalized within their own communities.
“I think the real irony is you have street names that are supposed to be honoring Indigenous people, and you have mascots that are supposed to be honoring Indigenous folks, I think a lot of people think, oh well, our town does that or our city does that. But they’re very unaware of the Indigenous people that live there, and what their issues and histories and legacies are,” he said.
When it comes to public art honoring Indigenous people, Silliman identifies two major issues. The first being that it is usually a small monument that is not very visible to the public and the second that it deals entirely with the past and not with the present.
“The art or heritage kinds of spaces in cities don’t acknowledge [Indigenous people] very much. And sometimes, the sort of later colonial acknowledgement of indigenous histories in the US are often like little boulders that are out in some small-town park that says: ‘in honor of the last, so and so’,” he said. “They’re monuments to the last of somebody instead of the lasting or the permanence of them.”
When it comes to reframing or retaking controversial public art, Silliman believes it needs to be done explicitly, because many non-native people will drive by a statue and not think twice about it, let alone read a plaque on a pedestal. Where in the past, this has been done aggressively, such as pouring red paint on a statue of Christopher Columbus or cutting off its head, Silliman sees “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” as a possible alternative.
“I think that attempting to reframe it when it’s done really explicitly, like that MFA case, I think that has some real potential and some power,” he said.
Explicit public art has been used before to get a point across. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, also informally called the National Lynching Memorial, contains 805 hanging steel rectangles representing each of the U.S. counties where a documented lynching took place. It also includes sculptures depicting themes related to racial violence. Margaret Hickey, a professor of architectural design at Mass Art, studies the different ways in which public art can affect its surroundings.
“It’s not just the buildings, it’s the surroundings of the buildings. Its public space. And that’s why we’re (architects) interested in it,” she said.
Hickey points out other uses for public art, such as Patricia Johanson’s Sergo Lily Dam project in Salt Lake City which functions as a dam and a work of art. “It’s not just art with a use, but a vital use,” she said.
The use of the project is to preserve and protect the plant and wildlife in the surrounding area. During dry spells, it functions as a community park for pedestrians and wildlife. When large amounts of rain descend on it, it absorbs the water, preventing floods and saving lives.
“Public art doesn’t just have to be a statue. It can be a part of daily life. It can make it better,” Hickey said.
How the new additions to “Appeal to the Great Spirit” will affect daily life remains to be seen. But one purpose it may serve is to make people think and start a conversation.
“People don’t like to go to a park and look at a statue of a bad thing, right?” Silliman said. “And that’s what makes it so that I think that public art could do more public good, maybe if it made people more uncomfortable.”