Op-ed: Preserving the memory of what just happened

Cultural Landscapes Part Two

Op-ed: Preserving the memory of what just happened

(Ryan Stopera for Juxtaposition Arts)

With the death of George Floyd on May 26, an unprecedented wave of pent-up rage swept across the Twin Cities. In the weeks that followed, this anger sparked one of the most creative outbursts of public protest art and memorials that most American cities have ever seen.

Without any visible coordination, high school students, neighbors, protestors, political activists, and store workers immediately began to paint Floyd-related murals all over Minneapolis and St. Paul. Often, they appeared on the plywood window coverings hastily put up after the first night of protests.

A mural of george floyd in minneapolis
One of the many murals that have sprung up in Minneapolis as of late. (Frank Edgerton Martin)

On July 1, I wrote an opinion piece for Architect’s Newspaper on the seeming inability of local and national historic preservation organizations to address this protest art and its messages.

For a moment, our isolated, mid-size metropolis was drawing media coverage from around the world. After five days and nights of protests, it was clear that embedded racism linked with oppressive policing could no longer be tolerated—neither here nor anywhere.

At a global tipping point, the Twin Cities’ leading history and arts organizations seemed entirely caught off-guard. As the weeks passed, major museums began to back away from taking part in collecting the protest art or preserving its critical political narratives and personal stories.

A spokesperson for the Walker Art Center told a reporter that as “a large institution built on the foundations of white supremacy, it is not the Walker’s place to lead such efforts.”

This confessional, virtue-signaling response helped to get the Walker off the hook for limiting their collection policies. In admitting their historic unworthiness to collect Black political outsider art, the Walker offered, as consolation, curatorial and conservation support for groups more qualified.

For the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), the official response was nearly identical. Spokesperson Michaela Baltasar-Feyen stated that Mia recognized the “complex history of colonialism and white supremacy that has informed our collection of art and artifacts from different cultures.” For this reason, Mia did “not want to compound the errors of the past by presuming to be the institution that should acquire these murals.”

I, too, experienced this conundrum as part of a professional group planning a program of Twin Cities historic landscape tours for next summer. As the murals went up, people asked: “Is the Floyd moment and art relevant for our cultural landscape event?” And, “How can we weave this story into our tours if all the murals are gone by 2021?”

In Minnesota’s mainstream art and history museum community, many institutions seemed to find a reason for why they were unqualified to address the art of this historic moment. The Floyd event was quickly becoming one of the most important moments in Minnesota’s history; and no one in the official curatorial community (including historic preservation) had any idea what to do.

Their institutionalized authority and presumed expertise now seemed useless given the fact that the protest art was entirely made by outsiders, ephemeral, and imbued with political force. The protest art was not “artistic” or decorative. It was born of pain outside our comfort zone.

A Grassroots Response

Four months later, a diverse group of outsiders is stepping in to preserve far more than the murals themselves. The Twin Cities are now witnessing a fascinating grassroots response as several small groups invent their own strategies for preserving the memory and political messages from Floyd’s killing.

Young people, university professors, and Black arts organizations are using oral histories and photo documentation to create narratives about the people, buildings, and neighborhoods affected.

In mid-June, Kenda Zellner-Smith started an Instagram account (@savethe_boards_mpls) where she started posting images of the boards she found striking and likely to soon disappear. By mid-August, she had over 2,000 followers. She asked in her captions how this art could be preserved and accessible to people of color.

Later in the summer, when she had already collected a few dozen boards she met Leesa Kelly from the group Memorialize the Movement. Kelly collected murals with the intent of exhibiting them at the Minnesota African Heritage Museum and Gallery in north Minneapolis. Other ideas include exhibiting the boards every year on the anniversary of Floyd’s death on May 24th and placing them around the city.

Two other organizations, Preserve Minneapolis and the Urban Mapping Project at the University of St. Thomas have launched photo documentation projects. Seeking to build a long-term teaching tool, the St. Thomas project invites visitors to contribute their own images of political art from around the world.

To capture the range of people touched by the days of protests, Minneapolis photographer John Steitz created a compelling collection of black and white portraits.

Together, such small projects are more effective in sustaining memory and social critique than preserving murals in situ or in museum collections where they would become frozen in time, exhibited out of context and ultimately conserved in storage.

The roughly 1,000 protest murals that emerged this summer were never intended for that. Traditional collection and historic preservation approaches are failing.

Because the murals that momentarily transformed entire streets will soon vanish, they can’t be placed on a local historic register for protection, nor should they remain in place forever. These are temporary works of art on working streets and buildings that must continue to function and evolve.

By the summer of 2021, the only remaining painted murals will be those that building owners choose to keep up or move to another part of their building. Some businesses, like Penzey’s Spices in Uptown, are moving their murals inside as permanent fixtures.

A major reason that so many murals are still up is the regional plate glass shortage slowing repair. Dozens of murals also still cover small businesses that failed because of looting.

Human Stories Beyond the Art

The stories of the neighborhoods affected and their businesses is more relevant than art collecting in documenting the origins of racism and social inequality in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most kids in fourth and fifth-tier suburbs have rarely spent time in an urban neighborhood or met other kids who live there.

Tassoula Hadjiyanni, chair of the interior design program at the University of Minnesota, is introducing her mostly white students to the stories of urban life. As the protests subsided, Hadjiyanni launched the “Landscapes of Hope,” a long-term teaching and history program to gather the histories of businesses and people affected by the protests and damaging out-of-town looters. They are also documenting the entire tenant histories of the nearly 1,200 structures touched by the unrest.

Two of the hardest-hit areas, Lake Street in Minneapolis and University Avenue in St. Paul, are living ledgers of generations of immigrant groups who arrived in Minnesota, built homes and businesses, and then moved on as the next wave of newcomers took their place.

These late 19th– and early 20th-century buildings tell stories that are suddenly more relevant than ever. University Avenue has always connected diverse and evolving neighborhoods, and it is no surprise that George Floyd, a marginalized newcomer himself, was killed eight blocks from Lake Street.

“Our goal is to gather everything that’s being done in the Twin Cities to document the neighborhoods and buildings touched by the George Floyd protests,” said Hadjiyanni.

The Landscapes of Hope website conveys the histories of over 200 buildings and businesses affected by the protests, whether through graffiti, art, vandalism, or complete loss through fire.

“Every single one helps to tell the story,” she noted. For most buildings along Lake Street, these stories go back generations and cross decades, business types, and changing owners.

“Most people don’t know Lake Street” Hadjiyanni continued. “Especially today, when the city has expanded to six or seven rings of suburbs, Lake Street and other places where the protests occurred are virtually unknown to most people….”

Someone painting a mural on a board outside of an ethiopian restaurant
Outside Demera Ethiopian (Alex Gaiter Smith)

Connecting Past and Present: Buildings, Art, and Immigration

One of Lake Street’s oldest continuously operating businesses is Ingelbretson’s Nordic Marketplace—a deli and store opened in 1921 to serve the largely Norwegian and Swedish immigrants who settled that part of the city. The business is undergoing repairs and its building and story are typical of those included on the Landscapes of Hope story collection.

“How do you address history and its connection to the present?” Hadjiyanni asked. One answer is to understand contemporary immigration as part of an ongoing tradition. Today, Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the county, and this group now changing the face of Lake Street.

Ninety percent of Somali-owned shops in Minneapolis are run by women. Hadjiyanni explained that this broad-based entrepreneurial model in Minneapolis is now being studied by other countries, such as Sweden, with recent refugee populations.

Mama Safia’s Kitchen at 2700 E. Lake Street is one such business damaged during the late-May protests. Vandals broke into and caused extensive fire damage to the Coliseum Building affecting many storefront businesses. Since then, a GoFundMe campaign has raised over $200,000 to repair extensive damages.

The point is that the goal is not to restore the building to its historic “period of significance” following historic preservation guidelines. People do not value Mama Safia’s as an artifact that can be collected in a historic district. In a time of crisis, neighbors value and remember this cafe for what happens there, for the sense of community and safety that it offers.

“Gathering these stories is almost like a healing process,” Hadjiyanni said, recalling her own past growing up with both British colonialism and war in Cypress.

In gathering the social histories of buildings touched by the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Landscapes of Hope is also exploring intentional place-making, memory, and agency.

“To talk about race, we have to talk about agency,” she added. “We have to talk about how Black people find meaning in their homes, how they become sites of resistance.” Hadjiyanni and her students are speaking with people in their homes and exploring how these indoor spaces become personal expressions outside the mainstream world.

Human Agency and Resistance

“In the first few days, we were making George Floyd T-shirts even as the riots were still going on” said Alex Gaiter Smith, an artist and teacher at Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA) in North Minneapolis. JXTA is a remarkable urban arts school for students ranging from 9th grade to age 22. To be admitted, the students first complete a college-level drawing course. Once in, they can take studios in screen printing, large scale murals, and environmental design. There’s also a course called “Tactics” where students learn how to engage with communities, civic groups, and businesses in creating their art.

The students also work in paid internships for such Twin Cities institutions such as Target Corporation, the Guthrie Theatre, and the famous music venue First Avenue.

Thus, when the George Floyd protests erupted, JXTA—unlike most established history and arts groups—knew how to respond. “We relied on the structure already in place,” Smith says. “We knew how to paint, make T-shirts…we knew how to design.”

He recalls that “all of a sudden, it was really important to be making work.” And his students agreed. “It was crazy outside,” Smith said, “and JXTA was kind of a safe space [for us] to process and be creative—to not be living it the whole time.”

Although not an official JXTA activity, Smith and a few students and alumni started painting murals on their own. Volunteers reached out to store owners and others who wanted art for their window boarding.

“I was driving around town with a car full of paint all summer,” Smith said.

Over the last three months, Smith and his students never focused on preserving or documenting murals. Instead, they made them, and this experience reinforced for students their confidence in expressing themselves. Making protest art can become a powerful act of discovering one’s own human agency—the same sense of inner strength that Tassoula Hadjiyanni and her students observe in residents’ homes.

For most of the students at JXTA, the city is their home. They have been to Lake Street. “Young people live this,” said Smith. “It’s not something that is new to them—this is reality.”

JXTA is already is creating a new generation of storytellers. They are using art-making to build future possibilities for young people. When I asked Alex Gaiter Smith if he kept in touch with his former students, he said that he did and that “pretty much all of them are working in some creative form.”

A giant mural in front of a rain garden
A rain garden enlivened with a public mural (Courtesy the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization)

As we move into fall, the memory of George Floyd’s death and its aftermath is already fading from memory for most suburban and rural Minnesotans. But will the political message from this time be remembered in “official” histories?

As for now, I’m not sure most Minnesotans do. Even worse, we still know little of the state’s draconian “Indian Removal” programs in the 19th century along with their brutality of mass hangings and concentration camps.

We never learned any of this in history class. Nor will these sites of conflict and their backstories be features in most upcoming historic preservation tours. There’s not much left on the ground to see.

But when you hear the narratives of what happened in visiting sacred places and sites of conflict—when, as I’ve been fortunate to experience, Native American historians share their emotive force, story-based tours become far more powerful than exhibits and collections.

Historic memory shapes the present, and the ironies here are painfully obvious, but the reality is that many of us over 50 grew up believing that our families did build a new frontier. Thus, 160 years after the US-Dakota War, white triumphalism still works as a political tool.

For generations, our school history texts and field trips to Fort Snelling—a major bastion of federal occupation, museums, and historic houses made this mythos real.

The 19th-century Native American letters, news accounts, and oral histories that told a different story—lay buried deep in archives which no one ever saw. Will George Floyd and the meaning of this summer be part of the future school curriculum? Can protest art help citizens 20 years from now to appreciate the impact of what just happened and why?