Two Thought-Provoking Exhibitions on Monuments & Native Art Opening at Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum

    icon Oct 06, 2022
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The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum at Saginaw Valley State University is hosting two thought-provoking exhibitions. “Rethinking Monuments: American Sculpture in its time 1850 – 2000” and “Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology” currently are on display through December 17th and seek to infuse context and perspective into the controversial socio-political-cultural debates concerning  public landmarks and the human devastation of uranium mining on native Indian tribal lands.

Rethinking Monuments is frames the history and reception of American by showcasing sculptures from a diverse group of practitioners from the Detroit Institute of Art, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Krasl Art Center and Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum., linking contemporary public debates with current events involving the sculptural legacies of American history. 

According to Museum Director Megan McAdow, the purpose of this exhibition is to prompt questions and encourage critical thinking about the monuments, sculptures, and memorials that shape American public spaces and narratives. This historical framework creates space for visitors to engage with timely questions about issues of equity, representation, and historical memory involved with  American monuments and memorials.

“What the overall exhibition is trying to convey, including the title, is that there is not one way to look at any given monument,” reflects McAdow. “There’s always different perspectives pro and con and some people think these controversial monuments should be placed in a museum where they can be protected and presented with more context, whereas others feel certain things should be destroyed and taken down. What we’re trying to do is ask people to think about these different perspectives.”

As communities around the country confront the fictions, assumptions, and stories cast in bronze or carved in granite in their town squares, the works of American sculptors have entered public debate with great fervor. By exploring how sculptors created works for different historical moments, this exhibition will encourage visitors to think about the many voices and perspectives informing the current reassessment of American monuments.

“The works in Landmarks are displayed and interpreted a chronological art movement fashion from 1850 to 2000 where we see a progression along a timeline of what might be considered a monument, continues McAdow. “A lot of them are not super literal in the way most monuments are talked about today; however, many are contemporary sculptures that may represent things not in a traditional way but in a political way.”

“What a lot of these pieces do is make people think about what is even considered a monument - what gets monument status verses what doesn’t. For me personally,  the difference  between an artistic sculpture and a monument is that a monument commemorates a person or event because of something achieved that it represents; but this exhibit asks the viewer are there other things in public art works that are either monumental in scale, or do they become something that is a monument to a city?”

“For example, The Heidelberg Project in Detroit is a whole series of small to large objects suggesting that these pieces are a monument to that city because they become part of the identity to that city.  It involves houses, cars, and objects spanning an entire urban area in the heart of Detroit with a mission to improve the lives of people and neighborhoods through art.”

“Another interesting piece we feature is a Marshall Fredericks model that he made to submit for the Cleveland War Memorial, only it is not the one that got made,” notes Megan. “The base portion of the sculpture stayed in the final design, but the two figures in the piece were altered because when he proposed it to the committee in Cleveland they said they did not want to see fully nude bodies as part of their war memorial, so he altered the human body and wrapped it in flames.”

“Being the savvy artist he was, Marshall used that model for a different sculpture that eventually became the ‘Stargazer’ in Royal Oak, so he took his idea to another place when it was rejected. This begs questions in terms of how site specific is a piece of public art that in turn becomes a monument?” 

Another Fredericks piece featured in the exhibition is a sculpture he rendered of automotive innovator Henry Ford. “Monuments mean different things to different people,” states McAdow. “Henry Ford is a hero to many because in addition to his automotive innovations, he brought the first equitable and livable wage into play for all workers, which caused migration from the South because black & white races were paid equally. However, he also had a history of supporting anti-Semitism, which shows how things need to be viewed in context. People were more empathetic to those sentiments back then, so all of us have different opinions of this man and people can make up their own minds about what should be done with these controversial figures or monuments.”

Without doubt, the most valid criticism of the ‘Cancel Culture’ movement is its myopic tunnel vision that removes historical context from the equation, leaving a dangerous one-dimensional view of historical figures and events. 

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson may have been slave traders, but the former led battles that secured our independence and the later was also a devout abolitionist. Moreover, black emperors and tribal leaders in the Aramaic and Mesopotamian empires also owned slaves, so viewing purportedly offensive monuments in a manner negating both the achievements of the subjects involved along with the realities of the period of time represented leaves future generations with a serious and dangerous gap in understanding - which is true of all totalitarian endeavors employing acts of censorship to advance their cause.

“For us the importance of this exhibition is not suggesting to tear things down, but asking people to think about things from multiple perspectives,” responds Megan. “How do you respond to something you find disturbing, especially if you’re from a segment of society who doesn’t feel like their voices are being listened to, or don’t understand the context of the subject or figure that is portrayed.  This is why today many feel some of these monuments belong in a museum - because we can provide both context and protection. The dilemma, however, is that many museums do not necessarily have the space for these large monuments.”

Bringing the debate closer to home, Father Nouvel’s White Man’s Rock on Ojibway Island is a good example of this on-going debate.  “Nouvel was the first white man in Saginaw Valley to baptize somebody on the date noted on his monument and he is a prominent person in Saginaw history,” reflects Mega. “But what is the context around that? These were native lands to the Chippewa Indians, so a group of community members have now re-engaged the discussion around this rock monument and its context in terms of what’s missing from the story.”

“A grant has been awarded from Art Bridges in conjunction with that monument to convene different community members and host group discussions about what that monument means to them - what’s missing and if we were to make a new monument, what would be included that could compliment or supplement the current one?  We will be holding those discussions in October and engage an artist to take feedback and make a new monument so that in the Spring we will hopefully be able to install something.”

The Travesty of Uranium Mining

The second exhibition also running through December is “Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology”, which documents international Indigenous artists’ responses to the impacts of nuclear testing and uranium mining on Native peoples and the environment. This exhibition gives artists a voice to address the long-term effects of these man-made disasters on Indigenous communities in the United States and around the world.

As one startling example, there are presently 520 abandoned uranium mines  and mills on Navajo Nation reservations and Pueblo lands and most of them are unmarked  These represent less than 12% of the more than 4000 abandoned uranium mines in the Western USA, and a fraction of those throughout the world.

Before 1962, Native American miners worked in the uranium mines without any protective equipment and live in houses constructed from contaminated material. Many of them have died as a result of uranium related illness. Generations later, family members continue to suffer from cancer and birth defects resulting from uranium contamination.

“One of the reasons we wanted to feature this exhibition was as we learned more about this topic we realized it isn’t front of mind for a lot of us, and for the native peoples living with it we didn’t realize this has been going on for so long,”  laments McAdow.

Many of the Indigenous artists featured in this exhibition utilize local or tribal knowledge, as well as Indigenous and contemporary art forms as visual strategies to communicate humanities topics such as ethics and culture.

When asked what tribal knowledge is utilized to communicate these issues, Megan points out how the artists use traditional motifs such as masks to create something to convey visual commentary to a s specific political & ecological issue.

“These traditional approaches are not always directly understood by a non-indigenous person and native American symbols are different from aboriginal,” she continues.  “How these symbols are used are best understood by the people of that culture, but I think certain messages get across regardless of one’s cultural background. To site one example, a traditional trout basket for keeping fish might use that motif to reference something like the environmental damage created by uranium mining.”

“All of these featured pieces are very different and most of them immediately striking” concludes Megan. “Some of the works originally curated for this show were extremely large and complicated pieces. One had 150 spears included with it, so we could either feature one piece or feature over a dozen pieces, including some video works. With the virtual exhibition people can link and see these as well as a little documentary piece on some of the artists.”

“Each piece is very different and immediately striking. Strong messages are being conveyed and represented from traditional basket weaving to large scale painting and digital videos, so the works run a wide gamut stylistically but are all very impressionable.”

To complement the exhibition, the Museum will host a discussion on Art and Politics led by SVSU Professor Erik Trump, Saturday November 5th from 11 am – 1 pm. Admission is free and refreshments will be provided.

“This exhibition will also guide programming for Native American Heritage Month this November and the Museum is planning many opportunities for celebrations and public discussion on related topics,” she notes.

One such event is an evening celebrating the Oglala Lakota Sioux holy man Black Elk. Visitors can view Marshall Fredericks’s impressive sculpture titled “Black Elk: Homage to the Great Spirit” in the Museum's sculpture garden then stay for a reception and book-signing by Father Michael Steltenkamp, author of two books on Black Elk.

Marshall Fredericks sculpted Black Elk: Homage to the Great Spirit as part of a fundraiser for the Tower of the Four Winds, a 44 feet tall memorial to author John G. Neihardt and Black Elk, Lakota Sioux holy man.  The sculpture was later enlarged to the 13-foot sculpture on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University which is on long term loan from the Scott Seligman Family Foundation. As a child Fredericks spent time on the Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota where his father worked.

Following the reception Father Steltenkamp will discuss his Black Elk research and books in a lecture at SVSU’s Rhea Miller Recital Hall near the Museum. This event is on Wednesday, November 16 at 5:00-8:00 pm. Black Elk books will be available for purchase and signing by the author.

The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum is located on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University, 7400 Bay Road, University Center, MI. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

For more information, call (989) 964-7125 or visit the Museum’s website at Both exhibitions are also available online.

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