3.10 / Review

The Elephant in the Room: Reframing Past and Present Histories

By Christian L. Frock February 29, 2012

Driving into Kansas City from the airport, one observes nothing but gently undulating prairie for miles. The historic downtown brick buildings are beautiful as they appear on the horizon, especially if you happen to arrive in the late afternoon glow of the setting sun. Kansas City is massive, encompassing more than three hundred sprawling square miles. Beyond scale, the sociopolitical geography also poses obstacles for visitors; as with so much of the American landscape, an embedded history of racial disparity defines unspoken boundaries within and around the city, the contours of which are recognized only within the community. Understanding historically freighted terrain is a sensitive process, garnered through a familiarity that comes with time; as a visitor, what kind of observations can be made? Through their work, several Kansas City artists critically address the local history and generate dialogue about it. This article offers a glimpse into the ways that artists speak through local activity to the larger picture.

Among locals, Troost Avenue is psychologically loaded, a historical division that bisects the community geographically and racially. Troost Avenue’s significance in this regard can be traced as far back as the 1700s, to the displacement of the Osage Nation whose former canoe trail is delineated by its path; in the early 1800s, the area east of Troost Avenue was populated by a 365-acre slave plantation owned by the Kansas City founding father and Dutchman Dr. Benoist Troost.1 A heritage of inequality is deeply rooted in this land—today the area is home to a predominantly underserved and impoverished non-white community and is rife with blighted houses. A number of artists throughout the city address this glaring divide.

Following a recent panel discussion on public art and community at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, A. Bitterman—a pseudonym of the artist Peter Cowdin—prepared an unsolicited proposal-cum-artwork for the museum. Presented as a series of touristic postcards, the work was intended to incite institutional dialogue about the unspoken parameters of community. Bitterman’s City of Fountains (2011) proposes the transplant of a condemned house from the area east of Troost to the nearby museum’s lawn, to exist alongside signature sculptures such as Shuttlecocks (1994), by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.2 In exchange, Bitterman posits, Sheep Piece (1971–72), one of the museum’s thirteen iconic bronze Henry Moore sculptures, could be placed in the house’s vacated lot, two miles away. Though it received a perfunctory rejection from the museum, the proposal found enthusiasm elsewhere. Many people identified with the powerful implications of giving voice to the racial and economic division of the city. “It’s not a secret here, but nobody really talks about it,” says Bitterman, who readily acknowledges that his status as a white artist from a comfortable suburb complicates his critical position. “It’s the elephant in the room, civically speaking.”3

 

Courtesy of the Kansas City Museum and Union Station Kansas City

Warner Studio Collection. Courtesy of the Kansas City Museum and Union Station, Kansas City, MO.

A. Bitterman, from City of Fountains, 2011

A. Bitterman. City of Fountains, 2011; postcard. Courtesy of the Artist.

Caitlin Horsmon also mines regional history to generate dialogue-driven work. Her web-based project in development, Resistant Histories (2012), repositions histories of oppression as histories of resistance by examining regional activists of the past. Presented as online films and media, the project includes walking tours of historic sites, designed for mobile devices. Horsmon, who teaches in the departments of Film and Media Arts and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, is also working with her students to create short documentaries.4 The subject of Horsmon’s current documentary is Corinthian Nutter, an African American schoolteacher of the 1940s, who advocated for and saw the racial integration of Kansas City schools five years in advance of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Beyond creating an archive of local history—there is very little online information about Nutter, despite the fact that her family name is memorialized around Kansas City—the website will also share research documents and provide teaching guides. Horsmon’s project aims to empower her students by demonstrating that the effects of seemingly small gestures make up a larger history.

Every act of resistance begins with someone expressing inequality, sometimes quietly. After viewing a 2006 exhibition of mid-twentieth-century photographs presented by the Kansas City Museum, the local artist and writer José Faus remarked in the comment book: “This is a very interesting show, but I don’t see myself here.”5 He was struck by the exhibition’s failure to represent the city’s diverse communities; a pervasively white presence dominated hundreds of images. In response to this blind spot, the museum recently began a series of initiatives to redefine an institution that “for years eschewed interest in [anything] other than the dominant cultural history,” according to the museum’s director, Christopher Leitch.6 One of the initiatives, the Nuestra Herencia project—Faus is a member of the community advisory council—aims to collect artifacts from Hispanic and Latino/a communities throughout Kansas City’s history.7 Faus notes that there are further plans to initiate an oral history project with the Latino Writers Collective that will engage younger community members in historicizing cultural memory. These are radical gestures in redefining the dominant culture locally, with the potential to cause untold effects elsewhere. “It’s not just Troost,” noted Faus. “It’s a mental division that exists—how do we break these walls down? It’s incumbent on artists to do it.”8

“Deciding that we are in fact accountable frees us to act,” writes the artist and historian Aurora Levins Morales in her essay “Racism: Rootedness as Spiritual and Political Practice.”9 Levins Morales traces a personal genealogy associated with slaveholders and discusses the complications of confronting racism from within its reaches. Accepting a challenging lineage, she asserts, creates progress. As evidenced by a number of all too brief Kansas City encounters, many of the city’s artists have found quietly proactive, nonaggressive ways to confront a history of racial disparity and, in doing so, to build community. Each of these artists implements simple strategies to engender dialogue about how the past is implicated in the present. Most importantly, their work invests younger artists with a responsibility to carry the conversation into the future.

 

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NOTES:

1. The earliest documented settlers of the area were French fur traders in the early 1700s, who allied with the indigenous Osage Nation against Spanish settlers. In the 1800s, following the Louisiana Purchase and dubious treaties with the United States government, the Osage were pitted against the Cherokees, among other tribes, in duplicitous promises for the same land. By 1825, the Osage ceded all traditional lands in Missouri as well as Arkansas and Oklahoma. Sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osage_Nation (February 17, 2012); additional information sourced from http://www.slideshare.net/ReconciliationServices/brief-history-of-troost-avenue (February 17, 2012).

2. Bitterman takes his title from the Kansas City tourism slogan that touts the more than two hundred fountains located around the city.

3. A. Bitterman, email to author, February 16, 2012.

4. The website (http://www.resistanthistories.org) will launch in May 2012. There are five completed films thus far. To date, the completed Kansas City neighborhood walking tours include Downtown Overland Park, Bannister Mall, Independence, the East Side of Kansas City, the Crossroads, Hyde Park and North Hyde Park.

5. The Photographer’s Eye featured more than two hundred images of Kansas City from the 1950s and early 1960s, all taken by Warner Studio.

6. Christopher Leitch, email to author, February 18, 2012.

7. Another initiative, the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA), is organized in partnership with University of Missouri–Kansas City and contains a collection of AIDS Walk T-shirts, among other ephemera.

8. José Faus, in a telephone conversation with the author, February 15, 2012.

9. Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998), 76.

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