Gallery under fire over use of Native American imagery

Work from Scott Seekins
"The New Eden" features 40 works of art inspired by the Dakota War of 1862, including this one. Artist Scott Seekins says he put together the exhibition in part to educate white people about the brutal conflict, but Native Americans say he is profiting from the appropriation of their artistic heritage.
Courtesy Douglas Flanders and Associates

An upcoming gallery exhibition in Minneapolis is drawing opposition for its use of Native American imagery.

The show, called "The New Eden," features 40 paintings and drawings by Scott Seekins, all on the theme of the Dakota War of 1862.

The six-week conflict between the Dakota and European settlers resulted in hundreds of deaths, and the exile of thousands of Dakota men, women and children. It culminated in the mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn.

Doug Flanders — whose Minneapolis gallery is hosting the show beginning May 14 — used an image from the show to promote it on Facebook. At first it appears to be a drawing by a Plains Indian, except that Scott Seekins has drawn himself into the image, wearing his trademark white suit.

"It seems that that has got a lot of people offended, and that was absolutely not our intention," Flanders said.

He says dozens of people have posted on the gallery's Facebook page or called the gallery asking that the show be canceled.

But he says that's not going to happen.

"I really think people should just come and see it and then decide for themselves," Flanders said. "They can't make a serious judgement by one piece that's online."

Seekins says he inserted himself into the work as a way of witnessing the atrocities. It was not meant as a joke, or a put-down, he said.

"My focus was the white imperialism totally — it doesn't demean Native culture at all," Seekins said. "It's about the religion and disease and the military and the influx of white immigration into Minnesota and what it did."

Seekins is known for inserting himself into his artwork, and for appropriating the artistic styles of other artists.

In one series that echoes the art of Roy Lichtenstein, Seekins depicted himself in an ongoing relationship with pop icon Britney Spears.

Seekins is a widely recognized figure in the Twin Cities art scene. In summer, he dresses in all white — in winter he dresses in all black. He's been doing it for decades, and he's become such a Minneapolis institution that he's the subject of a website, a Twitter feed and a song. Artist and curator Dyani White Hawk says she doesn't doubt that Seekins had good intentions with his show. But she says his Dakota series is problematic on several levels.

Mimicking an individual artist is different from mimicking an entire culture, particularly a culture that White Hawk says was the target of a governmental genocide. Some of Seekins' drawings were made on what looks like ledger paper.

The most renowned ledger artists were Native American prisoners of war who no longer had access to animal hide.

White Hawk says Seekins is appropriating a native art form that has a very difficult but important history for native people.

"It's hurtful. It feels like yet one more time that something of value to our community and to our people is taken and used for personal gain in a long line of centuries of that happening in different forms," she said.

While Seekins might think he's helping Native Americans by sharing their story, White Hawk says, Native Americans have had other people framing their story for centuries — in academia and in museums. They've struggled to make their own voices heard.

"(Seekins') primary goal here was and is self-promotion of the worst kind," says Joe Horse Capture, a former curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art who now works at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "Seekins is not alone in this; he has been empowered to create this type of work."

At a time when more galleries are showing the work of Native American artists, and museums are hiring Native American curators, both Horse Capture and White Hawk say there's no need for a non-Native to play the role of cultural interpreter.

"But I really hope that hearing all of this feedback from the community," says White Hawk. "I hope that it gives both Flanders and Seekins an opportunity to reflect and understand and grow from that."

Regardless of what's learned, attendance is likely to be high at the show's opening — critics say they're planning a protest.

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