Minnesota State Capitol Art – what do we want to represent us?

Today I had the opportunity to see a presentation from Jim Bear Jacobs on the painful historical art in the Minnesota State Capitol – specifically how it depicts Native Americans and celebrates a manifest destiny that sought to “civilize” and already civilized culture. It was eye opening.

After the talk, we went on a brief tour of the Capitol to view some of the works he discussed and an exhibit hidden away on the third floor that he didn’t discuss. I wanted to share two pictures from the tour.

The first picture is from the Rotunda ceiling – the main entrance and focal point of the Capitol. Mr. Jacobs explained the depiction of manifest destiny, of the white male figure driving savagery from the land. He is led by angels – implying that he is being led by God to take the land from the current inhabitants. He is driving away a bear, a cowering mountain lion, a naked woman with the head of a fox and a brown-skinned man.

Not all of the details are prominent from the main floor but this photo was taken (using my phone) from an upper floor and the details are clear from that perspective. It gives a message that is horrifying. Perhaps you can make the case that it’s important to remember our past – but not in the main entrance, a place that should invite and welcome all citizens. This picture is not welcoming, rather it creates – through art – an imbalance based on color, ethnicity and I’d add gender.

The second image (Discoverers and the Civilizers led to the Source of the Mississippi) overlooks the Minnesota Senate Chambers. This is more brutal than the previous. This time white men and women (again led by angels) bring their church to “civilize” the inhabitants. And if that isn’t persuasive, they also have snarling dogs. The Native Americans in the pictures are seriously under-dressed for Northern Minnesota where they’d freeze in the winter and be eaten alive mosquitoes in the summer and the attire is not based on traditional Ojibwe attire. (Background on the picture leans to an Ojibwe connection.) Again – horrifying!

Art should celebrate Minnesota and Minnesotans. This art doesn’t. If you think it doesn’t make a difference, listen to Representative Peggy Flanagan talk about her experience viewing the art. Walk around the Capitol and view the pictures of people of all colors (if you can find people of all colors), look at women, look at the events that are celebrated. We can do better.

In a gallery on the third floor, we found an exhibit of photography of Mike Hazard – an artist whose work I know. These are pictures of faces of people we see in Minnesota today – doing every day Minnesota activities. We need to make room to celebrate these faces and others. Also featuring art of contemporary Minnesota artists might build an audience and develop economic opportunities for contemporary artists. If I learned nothing from last year’s Guerrilla Girls Takeover of Minnesota’s art scene, it’s that we can build an opportunity for art and change with thoughtful approach to how art is used.

I remember visiting the Belfast City Hall three years ago where they were in the process of re-selecting art and artifacts that would represent art and artifacts that respectfully celebrate a painful past. Maybe art can bring Minnesotans together in the same way.

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