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Dakota Nation Demands Removal of Sculpture at Walker Art Center

Liz Sawyer reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that a sculpture by the Los Angeles–based artist Sam Durant will be dismantled and removed from the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden following a protest of the piece by roughly one hundred Native Americans and an outcry on social media. Titled Scaffold, 2012, the two-story sculpture partly inspired by the gallows where thirty-eight Dakotas were hanged in Mankato in 1862 was supposed to go on view on June 3 along with more than a dozen other new works at the museum. The hanging of the “Dakota Thirty-Eight” after the US-Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota remains the largest mass execution in US history. Precisely when and how Durant’s piece will be removed will be determined in consultation with Dakota elders at a meeting this Wednesday with the Walker’s staff.

Durant’s intention was to raise awareness about capital punishment and address America’s violent past, but critics and protesters have called the work insensitive, saying it trivializes Dakota history and genocide. The Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso, said in a statement last Friday that the work had provoked a response that Walker officials “did not sufficiently anticipate or imagine.” After meeting with the artist, Viso decided the best course of action was to take down the work. “I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others,” Viso said. “This is the first step in a long process of healing.” She noted that Durant told her he was open to seeing his work dismantled because “it’s just wood and metal—nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.”

Graci Horne, an artist who identifies as Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota and Hunkpapa Dakota, told the demonstrators, who were carrying signs demanding the removal of the work on Saturday, of the museum’s decision. Community leaders had promised to present a “unified response to these grave offenses,” Horne said. They want to open a dialogue with Walker staff and to invite Durant to visit for a discussion on “ending the appropriation of the indigenous narrative.”

The artist today released a full statement regarding the removal of the piece and his original intentions for it, which you can read in full below.

“Let me begin by describing the sculpture that has become the focus of protest in recent days as I envisioned it when it was first exhibited in 2012 in Europe at The Hague, Netherlands; Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh, Scotland; and Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany.

This wood and steel sculpture is a composite of the representations of seven historical gallows that were used in US state-sanctioned executions by hanging between 1859 and 2006. Of the seven gallows depicted in the work, one in particular recalls the design of the gallows of the execution of the Dakota 38 in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862. The Mankato Massacre represents the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, in which 38 Dakota men were executed by order of President Lincoln in the same week that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Six other scaffolds comprise the structure, which include those used to execute abolitionist John Brown (1859); the Lincoln Conspirators (1865), which included the first woman executed in US history; the Haymarket Martyrs (1886), which followed a labor uprising and bombing in Chicago; Rainey Bethea (1936), the last legally conducted public execution in US history; Billy Bailey (1996), the last execution by hanging (not public) in the US; and Saddam Hussein (2006), for war crimes at a joint Iraqi/US facility.

Scaffold opens 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. In bringing these troubled and complex histories of national importance to the fore, it was my intention not to cause pain or suffering, but to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and peoples, and to build awareness around their significance.

Scaffold seeks to address the contemporary relevance and resonance of these narratives today, especially at a time of continued institutionalized racism, and the ongoing dehumanization and intimidation of people of color. Scaffold is neither memorial nor monument, and stands against prevailing ideas and normative history. It warns against forgetting the past. In doing so, my hope for Scaffold is to offer a platform for open dialogue and exchange, a place to question not only our past, but the future we form together.

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.”