In America’s post-racial age, it can still happen that a Latino artist is treated like a criminal at an art gallery where he is exhibiting work. In April, there was a symposium at Wayne State University about the low visibility of Latino artists in Detroit’s art scene. Black artists have fared better but there is still reason to be concerned that some very good artists are being denied opportunities just because of their race. Such a concern was voiced in June, when the show celebrating Detroit’s 313th anniversary at Detroit Artists Market (DAM) had no black artists exhibiting at all. Still, DAM has a much better track record for diversity than two of the four art galleries in Mexicantown which have never exhibited any black or Latino artists.
It was also in June that some alarming developments in mural artwork occurred. But before getting into the saga of Sintex, who allegedly defaced a mural honoring Vincent Chin’s memory, it is very important to ask whether or not Sintex has a good publicist. Given the swift and uncritical vilification of Sintex, how he has been portrayed as a violent and incoherent idiot, and that Andrew Pisacane has not been taken to task for his offensive and inappropriate mural, it seems safe to say that Sintex does not have a publicist at all.
Andrew Pisacane (also known as “Gaia”) came to Detroit last year to do a mural for the Z Garage, a collaboration between Quicken Loans and Library Street Collective. Then, in June of this year, he started on a mural for the Grand River Creative Corridor (GRCC) that was supposedly meant to honor Vincent Chin, a man who died after a vicious, brutal beating in a Detroit suburb in 1982. The left side of the mural was indeed a fitting, poignant memorial. But Pisacane couldn’t leave it at that. “I wanted to extend the piece beyond remembrance,” he said long after he painted the mural, something that should have set off a major red flag if he had said it during the planning stages.
In some ways, Pisacane is a lot like Sheldon Cooper, a fictional character on The Big Bang Theory who knows a lot about science and history but not a lot about being a good guest. For Cooper (played by Jim Parsons), showing off his knowledge is more important than just about anything else; he can’t keep his mouth shut even after it gets him kicked out of three different places in one episode. In real life, Pisacane had to show off his knowledge of the “macroeconomic forces that engendered” the racism leading to Chin’s murder. Pisacane did this by including in the mural the faces of Ludwig Erhard, Sun Yun-suan and Hayato Ikeda.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Erhard died in 1977 and Ikeda in 1965, both before Chin in 1982. Yun-suan, who died in 2006, was probably not in America either when Chin died. Pisacane’s intent was to show off his knowledge of history and economics, but by including irrelevant persons in his mural, he sent the unintentional message that Erhard, Ikeda and Yun-suan are somehow responsible for Chin’s death. There must be no equivocation: Michael Nitz restrained Vincent Chin so Ronald Ebens could strike Chin with a baseball bat, according to RememberingVincentChin.com. Nitz and Ebens murdered Chin. Erhard, Yun-suan and Ikeda may have had their own sins and crimes, but in Chin’s death they are blameless.
Therefore, Pisacane’s mural is an insult not only to Chin but also to Erhard, Yun-suan and Ikeda. During the planning stages for the mural, did Pisacane show anyone his full plan? And if he had, wouldn’t someone have expressed concern that his intent could be misunderstood? Sintex did not deface a mural honoring Vincent Chin because Pisacane did not create such a mural. Sintex buffed out Pisacane’s mural and made a new mural that also included Vincent Chin.
Now, if Sintex had a good publicist, he would have questioned the moral legitimacy of Pisacane’s mural and debunked the myth that Chin’s family was properly consulted. Instead, Sintex declared Detroit to be a “no-fly zone,” immediately earning him derision. A publicist may have suggested a more nuanced message, such as, for example, “If you don’t want it painted in your hometown, don’t paint it in Detroit.” Or: “How would he like it if I went to Baltimore and did a mural about a hate crime victim killed in a Baltimore suburb?” Sintex could have demanded that Pisacane apologize to the Chin, Erhard, Yun-suan and Ikeda families. Also, Sintex could have cited Katie Yamasaki’s mural in memory of Trayvon Martin as an example of how to properly do a mural about a hate crime victim.
At least Sintex is still alive to tell his side of the story, if only he would make a tiny effort to endear himself to reporters. Neither Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri nor Eric Garner of New York can tell their side of the story now. Both were unarmed when they were killed by policemen, and both have been demonized in the media. Following grand jury decisions not to indict either cop, protests broke out across the country.
Here in Detroit, protesters marched on freeways and major streets, and caused minor inconvenience at the Noel Night festivities in December. As President Barack Obama said, sometimes inconvenience is necessary to trigger a “country’s conscience.” On Noel Night, protesters marched around Midtown and held a “die-in” in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).
There has been controversy inside the DIA as well, with the recent revelations that back in 2012, DIA Director Graham Beal received such a large pay raise he’s now better compensated than the nation’s president. Beal has also been awarded hefty bonuses. Taxpayers in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne Counties, whose millage helps fund the DIA, are demanding that Beal return the raises and bonuses. DIA Board Chairman Eugene Gargaro has repeatedly said that large compensation is needed to attract top talent. But perhaps the compensation is attracting people more interested in lining their own pockets than in safeguarding a cultural treasure. Maybe a DIA director who truly deserved the raises and bonuses would have declined them.