USA: Sculpture removed after protest

4 July 2017
Sam Durant’s ‘Scaffold’ was removed from the Walker Art Centre after Native American community members protested the artwork for featuring a mass execution.
Photo: Protest posters at Walker Art Center/Wkicommons


Sam Durant’s controversial large-scale sculpture ‘Scaffold’ was removed from the Walker Art Centre’s sculpture garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after members of the Native American community protested the artwork as it partly was modelled on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in 1862, reported Star Tribune on 9 June 2017.

The Dakota community and other Native American communities saw the sculpture as representative of an ignored and painful part of history.

Tribal historian for the Lower Sioux community Cheyenne St. John told the Star Tribune: “These were acts of genocide, not something to be portrayed between a giant rooster and a cherry.”

The artist, art centre and Dakota agreed that the work would be dismantled beginning 2 June and then transported to Fort Snelling, where Dakota people were imprisoned after the 1862 US-Dakota War, for a ceremonial burning. Elders and leaders, however, put the burning on hold to discuss other uses for the materials.

Artist apologises
In a 27 May 2017 statement, the artist apologised for the work and explained that his sculpture was meant to address the “difficult histories of the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States, ranging from lynchings to mass incarceration to capital punishment”.

Durant also said it was meant to be a “learning space” for “white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society”, but that he “failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people”.

The artist promised not to re-create the work and transfer the intellectual property to the Dakota people.

Removal faces criticism
Freemuse joined US-based freedom of expression organisation National Coalition Against Censorship in criticising the centre’s decision, calling it “hasty” and one that did not “obtain meaningful feedback from the broader community”.

The statement further read:

The Walker’s decision to destroy ‘Scaffold’ as a way to respond to protests sets an ominous precedent: not only does it weaken the institution’s position in future programming but sends a chill over artists’—and other cultural institutions’—commitment to creating and exhibiting political, socially relevant work. Even ostensibly voluntary decisions to destroy artwork have ominous implications for creative expression and the need for public debate over contentious social issues.

The 2012 sculpture was modelled off seven US-sanctioned hangings that took place in the country. The hanging of the so-called Dakota 38 was the largest one-day mass execution in American history, which took place on 26 December 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota.

The sculpture was set to be one of the new works in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden that was renovated over the course of nearly two years. The grand opening was postponed from 3 June to 10 June due to the removal of ‘Scaffold’.

In December 2016, two paintings depicting scenes from the 1862 US-Dakota War were removed from the State Capitol building in Minnesota, calling them “painful reminders of our shared history”.

» Read NCAC’s statement here

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