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Downtown sculpture depicting African slave ship starts controversy

March 6, 2010
photo - Michael Brohman's “Journey” depicts an African slave ship. Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE
Michael Brohman's “Journey” depicts an African slave ship. Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE 

Like a lot of art controversies, it started with the installation of a new work in a public space.

This one — Michael Brohman’s “Journey” — moved to its current location in front of the courthouse in June, when the Art on the Streets program kicked its 11th year-long show on downtown streets. It won $10,000 in prize money and was the winner in a Gazette poll of reader’s favorite work in the show.

The bronze depicts an African slave ship. Faceless, black figures are the bones of the boat and they line the vessel like stacked cord wood. It’s almost directly across the street from the bronze of William Seymour, the son of a slaves and in 1903, the first black juror in El Paso County.

“I was personally saddened,” said Springs NAACP president Rosemary Harris Lytleof the seeing “Journey” after the organization received a few inquiries and one complaint — all regarding its location, not the content of the work.

“It struck me as more than ironic,” Lytle said, “because the disproportionate number of descendants of those African slaves have to face a criminal justice system that doesn’t provide them with justice.”

It’s from bondage to bondage, as one community member described it to Lytle.

“I wasn’t necessarily surprised at the reaction,” said Brohman, a Denver sculptor and professor at University of Colorado-Denver. “People walk by it and encounter it unexpectedly, and I think they somehow feel confronted by it. No one likes confrontation. And it’s in the public sphere and people want it to be what they want it to be. But I would much prefer creating a piece of artwork and putting out there and getting dialogue going than doing something that’s just decorative and you’ll just forget. The world is already full of that.”

For both Brohman and exhibit curator Jan Schall, its placement actually reinforces Lytle’s point: Even after all these years, how far have we really come?

“The title of this sculpture, ‘Journey,’ speaks to both the grievous journey of African people aboard slave ships and to our nation’s continuing journey toward justice,” wrote Schall, a curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. She worked with Community Ventures on placement of the sculptures, which was sometimes simply a matter of space required.

This isn’t the first time that Art on the Streets has spurred a reaction, said Denise Schall, program coordinator of Community Ventures, an affiliate of the Downtown Partnership that focuses on public projects, especially those in the arts.

“It happens every year,” said Schall, who’s not related to Jan Schall. “Never anything like this, though.”

Most complaints have to do with a sculpture’s interruption of someone’s daily routine or not understanding the work, which happened in 2000 with Bob and Cat Tudor’s “Pisces in Crisis.” Some people incorrectly interpreted the reoccurring fish symbols as a reference to Christianity.

Many calls to Schall are misunderstandings about whether city taxes paid for it. The artwork in Art on the Streets is actually on loan from the artist. Sometimes, the privately funded Community Ventures buys one. Sometimes it’s a member of the community.

But the problems with “Journey” weren’t who paid for it or what it was about, Lytle repeats. It was the context, which created a meaning for a work that could be upsetting regardless of the setting.

For better or worse, professional curators, which Art on the Streets began contracting to jury the show about three years ago, may be more likely to tap more challenging work.

A meeting at the end of February settled the issue. There, Lytle and others from the black community explained their objection to Schall and others connected with the show. While moving “Journey” isn’t possible until the show ends in May, it was agreed the work would be relocated even if it’s purchased for the city.

Will this change the way Art on the Streets is installed?

Schall nods. We will be more mindful of different points of view, she said.

On Friday , a plaque was added beside “Journey.” It asks viewers for feedback on the piece and includes part of the artist’s statement about “Journey.” Everyone approved of the solution.

“If anything good has come out of it,” Lytle said, “it’s the opportunity to have that conversation.”

Which for many is the whole point of art.

“At its best, art is trying to get people to talk,” said Blake Milteer, museum director of the Fine Arts Center. “I think that’s to be celebrated.”

Contact the writer at 476-1602.

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