Hundreds of people filled the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) main lobby on June 16 for the opening of a historic exhibit combining community, equity, and art. The exhibit, “Art and Healing: In the Moment,” pays homage to Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by police almost two years ago in Falcon Heights, Minn.
“If anyone asks you what unity looks like or asks you what solidarity looks like or what a community looks like, this is what it looks like,” said Philando’s mother, Valerie Castile, to the crowd of people gathered at the opening reception. “My son’s spirit is soaring in this room right now,” she said.
The free exhibit has been over a year in the making in celebration of Philando, 32, who worked for the St. Paul Public School System and was a beloved member of the community. In the months following his July 2016 death during a routine traffic stop, artists from all over the Twin Cities showed their support for the family through art, which was donated to the Castile family.
Valerie Castile said she found healing in their generosity, and her faith called her to not keep the artwork to herself. God, she said, told her, “‘You need to share this. You need to let the community see this because if it makes you feel better, it will make them feel better as well.’
“Through the power of art, it consoles me and makes me feel better,” said Castile. She also noted the significance of the event taking place on the one-year anniversary of the acquittal of the police officer who shot and killed Philando, saying, “After all of that, look at where we are today.”
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said, “I’m not glad that our community has to spend a Saturday evening reflecting, reminiscing over someone we should never have had to say goodbye to in the first place.” But he added, “I see around this space people who slept in front of the governor’s residence, people who committed themselves in that moment and every moment ever since to ensure that Philando’s life shall never be in vain.”
According to Just Mercy author Bryant Stevenson, one of the reasons Philando’s death is so burdensome is because, as a society, we have allowed a “narrative of racial difference” to exist. Stevenson, who recently founded the Legacy Museum that documents the history of racism in America, spoke at Mia on June 22 as part of one of the exhibit’s featured events.
“We have allowed silence when we need to be talking about our history and our truths,” he said to a sold-out crowd. He urged the crowd to take action to change these narratives, which he called an uncomfortable but necessary process.
Part of that process, Stevenson said, is bringing these truths into the public eye. The role of museums and public institutions is to provide a place for discourse, Stevenson said, which is why he was “thrilled” to hear about the Philando exhibit.
“Mia is always open to having dialogue and creating space for dialogue between art and visitors,” said Nicole Soukup, Mia’s assistant curator of contemporary art and the Minnesota artist exhibition project coordinator, about the exhibit. She added, “Mia is shifting its place and recognizing that moving forward we need to hold space for dialogue and conversation with our community.”
The exhibit, Soukup said, is “part of this movement in working closer and closer with our community and also rethinking what a museum is in the 21st century.”
“Art has been critical in the development of African American people,” said Dr. Mahmoud El-Kati, professor emeritus at Macalester College and community historian, pointing to the jazz movement of the 1930s and the Harlem Renaissance as examples. But something like the Philando exhibit has never happened in Minneapolis, he said.
“I was surprised [Mia] responded to Valerie as well as they did. That was thinking outside of the box,” he said. “It’s a plus for people who want to do something and who want to learn and who want to grow and who want to overcome the doctrine of White Supremacy,” said El-Kati.
Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, one of the exhibit’s featured artists, said he was glad Mia made space for the exhibit.
“The art is sacred, and I think that the container for that art is strategic,” he said, adding that the art “was important way before it was in Mia.”
Ellison said the alternative to the marching and pleading that resulted from the deaths of Philando and Jamar Clark, which had become depleting, was to create something fueling. That’s when he teamed with other artists to make a mural dedicated to Philando and others on Lake Street.
“Protests are needed, but they aren’t safe spaces, often,” he said. “They can be incredibly unpredictable, so just having a little moment for folks to eat and watch 10 artists paint and tell a story of struggle that resonated with them was really fueling for a lot of folks,” Ellison said.
At the minimum, Ellison said he hopes the exhibit shows Valerie Castile that “the life of her son yielded a lot of good, and a lot of creativity, and that people cared.”
Since the beginning of time art has been “intertwined with political movements and social unrest,” said Leslie Barlow, who has two pieces in the exhibit. “There has always been art tied to any type of movement – Civil Rights Movement, gay rights, feminist movement.
“Art is really unique in the way it can connect people and communicate about issues across cultural boundaries and language barriers. It can also help communicate about things that are very complex and complicated,” Barlow said.
“We’re a visual culture, and to have a visual representation of these issues is particularly important. It’s a catalyst for conversation. It elevates the conversation in different places.”
What Barlow said she finds most important is that this art is in a free and accessible place for everyone to see. “[It’s] really wonderful bringing this story into a place that maybe, historically, wouldn’t be represented in a place like that.”
“Art and Healing: In the Moment” is open now through July 29 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibit, along with a series of learning and healing circles centered around the exhibit, are free and open to the public. For more information, visit https://new.artsmia.org.
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This article appears in the July 5-11, 2018, issue of publication. Subscribe Now!