A candidate for the county legislature said last week that she’s offended by depictions of Native Americans on a mural put up at the YMCA as part of the O+ Festival.
Jean Jacobs, Republican candidate for the District 6 legislative seat in the City of Kingston, currently held by Democrat Dave Donaldson, said the images send a potentially divisive “ethnic message,” rather than celebrating Kingston’s “original heritage.”
Jacobs’ comments came in response to a reporter’s inquiry for a story about murals created as part of the annual arts and wellness festival in the city’s historic districts. Jacobs leveled general criticism of O+, saying that the event, now in its eighth year, hasn’t brought sustainable economic development.
She declined to discuss specific artworks other than one, painted by Brooklyn-based artist Vince Ballentine. The work depicts a pair of Native Americans — an elder in a feathered headdress and young girl standing together and gazing into the distance. Behind them is a mountain landscape and a rising or setting sun. In an artist’s statement, Ballentine placed the untitled work in the context of this year’s O+ theme of “Home.”
“This piece deals with generational wisdom and love, displacement, the environment and honoring the indigenous,” wrote Ballentine.
But Jacobs said that she was “shocked” by the mural. Jacobs said she had gone to the Y to speak to Ballentine after seeing him interviewed on local news and found him to be personable and open to discussing his work. However, she said, she believed the depiction of Native Americans painted on the Y was inappropriate and disregarded Kingston’s heritage. Jacobs said that she was “astonished” to see a mural that “signified a different race” painted on a facility like the YMCA, where she has been a member for 45 years.
“I think it divides the community,” said Jacobs. “It sends an ethnic message. Why did he come up with the idea — on the YMCA — to paint Indians. What does that signify?”
Jacobs also critiqued the artist’s depiction of the Native Americans as too “dark.” Ballentine is black and his art frequently incorporates Native American themes and people of color.
“It was supposed to be Indian, but it didn’t look Indian,” said Jacobs. “Maybe a black Indian.”
Jacobs framed her criticism of Ballentine’s work as part of a larger grievance about outsiders coming in and remaking public spaces as part of the O+ fest. In a Facebook posting, Jacobs also questioned, though not in explicitly racial terms, the propriety of a mural adjacent to a city parking lot on North Front Street by another Brooklyn-based artist Jia Sung that incorporates an image of a young Asian woman. Jacobs questioned who approved the murals and suggested that the artworks should be more in tune with the city’s “current heritage.”
“It’s [Ballentine’s] idea and no one else had anything to say about it,” said Jacobs. “That’s the issue I have and it’s happening all over the city.”
O+ co-founder and curator Denise Orzo said Monday, Oct. 9 that a festival committee known as the “Art Witches” solicit submissions and approve all mural concepts. Orzo said she welcomes what she called a discussion about “who gets to be represented in public space.” Orzo suggested that anybody offended by any of the O+ artwork should go stand in front of the piece with “an open mind and an open heart” and reflect upon the source of their grievance.
“I think it’s important to show the people who were here before [Kingston] was colonized,” said Orzo. “I think it’s important to depict all shades of skin to represent the people who live here now, not some frozen-in-time depiction.”
Jacobs, meanwhile, said she saw Ballentine’s work and other O+ murals as potentially dividing the community, not bringing it together. Jacobs claimed to have spoken to a number of city residents, including at least one YMCA board member who found the mural off-putting.
“It’s not just the Jean Jacobs hullabaloo. People are looking at this from afar saying, ‘What is going on here?’” said Jacobs. “You cannot let go of the heritage here.”