In late September, a billboard went up picturing a white man aiming a rifle at The Scout, the locally-famous statue of a Native American on horseback that’s in Penn Valley Park. The billboard also called out a cheery “Discover Kansas City!” in cursive font. But, it didn’t go over very well. The billboard came down about a week after it went up, and it nearly wasn’t installed at all.
One of the critics of the artwork, Moses Brings Plenty, met with A. Bitterman, the artist behind the controversial sign, for a public discussion at the Walnut Place Laundromat in midtown Kansas City, Mo.
Taking aim at the "dominant culture"
About 50 people gathered for the meeting in mid-October. Since early February the venue has hosted classes, discussions and events as part of a project called Byproduct: The Laundromat.
Moses Brings Plenty, with long shiny braids and a baseball cap, sat next to A. Bitterman, with glasses and a beard, and also a ball cap. Artist Jose Faus served as moderator.
Bitterman says he was first attracted to the site in Penn Valley Park, where The Scout, a bronze sculpture of a Native American on horseback, is perched. He says it represents the way the dominant culture often lays claims to things they don’t own.
"(The) Scout’s not an Indian, it’s a sculpture," says Bitterman. "And it’s made by and for white people, and it carries a dominant culture narrative. And that’s what I’m aiming at."
Putting yourself in The Scout's place
When Bitterman says "aiming at," he’s referring to the image on the two-part billboard: the artist with a rifle in his hand, pointed at The Scout. And that’s what stood out to Moses Brings Plenty, an artist and facilitator at the Kansas City Indian Center, who says it hit too close to home.
"Unfortunately, right now, because of the suppression and depression that the people have faced and continually face, they don’t look at something like that and say, 'Oh, ok. That’s an art piece,'" says Plenty. "No, they automatically put themselves in where that Scout’s at."
Plenty, an Oglala Lakota, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. From there, the conversation continued to explore ideas of ownership and the perspective of indigenous people.
"I’m an Indian. I’m not Native American, because my people are older than America," says Plenty. "I love the fact that someone tries to come to me and tell me about my people, or the history of my people. I know my history."
Creating new narratives from old
As Bitterman later described it on his website noweiwei.com, the discussion was "jagged, shifting between the heart and the mind (and) at times falling off the rails." At one point, he asked how to encourage people to look at things as if new, brushing away old interpretations or ideas, or "expired narratives," as he called them.
"Our entire reality is made up of narratives, and where do they come from, and how do we identify them, and what do we do with them, what do we keep from them," asks Bitterman."If you don’t address those things, and we’re going to wait around until people come to their senses – well, that’s a long past in my opinion."
Bitterman’s work was de-commissioned, and then after paying for its installation on a billboard on his own, it was removed after about a week because of complaints. (See earlier stories for more details.)
A space for dialogue
Julia Cole, the Rocket Grants program coordinator for the Charlotte Street Foundation, says there are other options besides simply taking down artwork that's controversial.
"Why is it, underlying all of this, there’s this sense that we have a really hard time bearing offense in a public way, and then allowing that to become part of the dialogue?" Cole asked.
Kreshawn McKinney is an educator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. McKinney says, from her perspective, as a person of color, it's essential to look outside your own experience.
"What is important to me is to be aware of the commonalities and to be aware and sensitive to the histories of all kinds of cultures," she says.
A new artwork to unfold
The conversation ended about two hours after it started, with no real resolution – but perhaps with a commitment to search for common ground. Or, at least the two artists agreed to talk about creating an artwork together.
"So how can we move together as the people, not about color, not about nationality, but as the people, and understanding and consciousness of one another’s emotions?" asked Plenty. "I think we can create a beautiful piece," he said to Bitterman, who responded, "Can we do it?"
To the audience Bittman added, "There you have it, we'll be back with you in six months."