Dangers of the Mail

BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder writes about a disturbing mural which is on the wall of a federal building in Washington D.C. He quotes a Washington Post article about the 1937 painting:

Check out the big mural on the fifth floor, a friend told Myrna Mooney one day last August, shortly after Mooney and fellow employees of the Environmental Protection Agency moved into new headquarters in the Federal Triangle complex. A Native American from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, Mooney was “flabbergasted” by what she saw:

Splashed across a 13-foot-wide canvas in the Ariel Rios Building was a graphic scene of Indians attacking and scalping white people. Called “Dangers of the Mail,” the 1930s-era painting included half a dozen naked white women being assaulted by Indians and an Indian stabbing a white man in the back.

“It portrays Indians as cowardly. It’s an insult,” said Mooney. “When you come from the reservation, these kinds of images make you physically ill.”

It looks like the painting is currently strategically hidden behind a bulletin board.

While I don’t think it is appropriate to have such racist images on the walls of government buildings, I also worry that simply removing such a painting will only sweep our racist past under the rug. A more creative solution might be to invite Native American artists to paint over the painting or submit other proposals for what to do with the space. Unfortunately, we do not seem to live in an era which encourages creative solutions to problems, so perhaps removing it entirely is more expedient.

13 thoughts on “Dangers of the Mail

  1. I agree with not simply removing it as if it had never existed, but how about, you know, leaving it there? Seems like an honest piece of our artistic and cultural heritage — a reminder of the little pieces of brutality that undergird our mostly positive self-image. If a response is necessary — and I think on e is — how about giving the facing wall (if there is one) to a handful of Indian artists? How about bringing in whatever curator is reponsible for the building’s public art to contextualize the piece somewhat? What was the piece’s intention, and how does the changing social context around the painting change the meanings attached to it?

    It seems to me that too many people from all across the political and ethnic spectrum want to sanitize our history, whether in the name of senstivity or national pride — I can’t imagine that there’s no way to display a painting like this that neither implies endorsement nor erase the fact that the views expressed by it were, in fact, once endorsed by the same body that might reject them today.

  2. I’m not sure if it’s the same painting or not, but one of the main meeting halls in the Bureau of Indian Affairs until recently had a painting on the wall of an Indian scalping a white settler.

  3. I agree with Oneman. The last thing that should be done is have someone, ANYONE, paint over the original. I agree the subject of the painting and its execution are offensive and its exhibition in a federal building is too, but it is “art” nonetheless and shouldn’t be destroyed. Perhaps there is a better venue/context for its exhibition. Storage isn’t a dirty word. The painting should still be curated for future generations. Who knows in what ways it can be used to teach, inform, and/or inspire.

    Its a good idea, in numerous aspects of our society not just federal buidling decoration, to allow American Indians a bigger role and a more active part in recognizing and shaping who and what we are.

  4. I have to disagree with the rest on this one. It is very clear that these images are extreemly hurtful to many Native Americans, I certainly don’t want to be telling them that we must preserve our history no matter how painful.

    I know I would feel plenty strange if Germany retained Nazi-era racist paintings of Jews on the walls of its government buildings, even if they were “contextualized.” Since my family are no longer German citizens this may not matter so much, but if I was a citizen I would really have problems with that. Not everyone wants to be reminded of the past everytime they go to work or have to file a tax return.

    Similarly, such “historical” arguments are often made by those who are somewhat sympathetic to such images. Just think of how the confederate flag continues to be used in many Southern states.

    If we are going to be forced to remember our histories it should be in a way that makes those who benefited from oppression uncomfortable, not the victims.

  5. Do we really believe that works of art, even mediocre ones, should be excluded from public places because someone will be made uncomfortable by seeing them? Was Kerim, I wonder, pleased by Rudi Giuliani’s decision to withdraw public funding from the exhibition in which Mapplethorpe’s Piss Christ appeared? Did he approve John Ashcroft’s covering the breasts of the statue of Justice at the Justice Department?

    Or, from another angle, is it either therapeutically or politically useful to whitewash unpleasant memories instead of confronting and working through them? One doesn’t have to be a conservative to wonder if encouraging a sense of victimization and denial as a coping mechanism is healthy for offended individuals or the body politic as a whole.

    Why not suggest that a similar mural be painted on the opposite wall, depicting, for example, Wounded Knee?

  6. Kerim,

    What concerns me is the “memory hole” effect — we don’t like this piece of history, so let’s erase it. I was actually disappointed when I visited ex-East Berlin a decade ago and found that the Soviets had destroyed virtually every trace of the Nazi regime’s architecture, as if it had never existed. I’m not as concerned with the value of the artistic expression or what not — what concerns me here is that the painting is honest. No trace of this past would be dishonest.

    And, frankly, I can’t imagine the painting being removed because it makes Indians uncomfortable — if that painting is taken down, it will be because it makes white folk uncomfortable. And being privileged means not having to be uncomfortable. True, not everyone wants to be reminded of this past — but that’s exactly why I feel it should be preserved. I’m not sure we want to live in a world where the only past is the one we want to be reminded of.

  7. John,

    You are deliberately misreading me. If you read what I say carefully you will see that the logic does not apply to Guliani, quite the opposite actually.


    If you are correct, I’m fine with that, but that is not the sense I got from statements like: “When you come from the reservation, these kinds of images make you physically ill.” In any case, my point is the same as yours – that history should not be completely erased – we just seem to draw the line in different ways remixing vs. “contextualization. Personally I think the former would be a more interesting and creative approach, as “contextualization” speakt to me of a boring explanatory diaorama…

  8. And, frankly, I can’t imagine the painting being removed because it makes Indians uncomfortable—if that painting is taken down, it will be because it makes white folk uncomfortable

    I think this is kind of ironic. Based on the two links from the original Boing Boing article, the “let’s contextualize it!” argument is exactly what the priveleged (read:government) wants to do. It is Native American employees who have been advocating for the removal of the paintings. The preservation of history, memory hole effect, etc seems kind of academic beside the actual concerns of working Native Americans inside the building (who face racism, hostile environment, etc).

    Do we really believe that works of art, even mediocre ones, should be excluded from public places because someone will be made uncomfortable by seeing them?

    You make it sound like the painting is gaudy, with poor choice of colour, and may be a bit of an eyesore. That is a bit different from “art” that was specifically designed to stir up nationalism and hatred of Native Americans.

    The canvas paintings can just be moved to a more appropriate location for study or storage. But that is a bit impractical when we are talking about an entire wall.

  9. Who yells the loudest gets their interpretation of history and Native culture represented, and where did I ever get the idea that Indian warfare only involved men-on-men in open fields and isolated areas far away from helpless women, children and the elderly? Needing the savage to be noble is indeed a subtle traint and can be viewed from many different perspectives of morality. Imagine a Native warrior stabbing an enemy in the back and taking some women hostage for ransom or for wives, about as odd as pony soliders showing compassion, wouldn’t you say?

  10. maniaku makes a good point, which that this painting is also offensive to good taste.

    Now I happen to like some of the Soviet architecture in East Berlin and some of the Fascist architecture in Italy, but I can’t say that I would demand both peoples live with this stuff for ever. Art and architecture is always being replaced, we usually call it “redecorating.”

    John, these aren’t “pre-labels” there is something called history. You know Columbus didn’t discover America, don’t you?

  11. I see the point about the worry about the “memory hole” effect. However, this is hardly the only piece of art around that illustrates anti-Indian racism, so losing this one painting isn’t going to somehow make us forget that those attitudes existed.

    There’s a place for displaying “contextualized” racist images, but I don’t think the hallway of a federal office building is that place. Take some high-quality images of it for posterity (which would in a way be better than moving the painting itself, since the photos could capture part of the hallway, showing how banal this kind of racism was). Then destroy it — I like the suggestion of inviting some Native artists to paint over it with a more positive mural.

  12. Sorry. I accidentially deleted some legitimate comments. It wasn’t intentional, I promise – we had a huge influx of SPAM which I had to delete and it got cought it the mix. My deepest apologies.

  13. Have we not already been victimized enough by Hollywood’s warped depiction of the history of the Native American culture? Must we re-inforce the stereotypes through the display of one man’s interpretation based on his subjective warped sense of reality? I would be curious to see what his depiction of the battle of Wounded Knee would look like. Would we see U.S. soldiers scalping the Indians, which was originated by colonial white men to turn in for bounty money? If you want to see one of the rare Hollywood depictions of how the West was really won try to find and view “Soldier Blue”. You may see “Dangers in the Mail” from a different viewpoint.

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