In the summer of 1974, two young artists rode their bikes through the streets of Minneapolis to attend an organizing meeting for African Americans working in communications. As the writer Soyini Guyton remembers it, there were about 40 people in attendance—journalists, photographers, graphic artists, and the like. The gathering led to the formation of the Twin Cities Black Communicators, an information and support group that served to broaden definitions of communications. “The group was good at bringing people together,” said Guyton, “and compiling a list of African American people working across the disciplines.” At the time she didn’t know, she would eventually marry one of the artists who had ridden his bike to the meeting—Seitu Jones—and years later they would collaborate with his cycling companion that day, the artist Ta-coumba Aiken.
In the summer of 2019, the Walker Art Center unveiled Shadows at the Crossroads, a multimedia project by Jones and Aiken in collaboration with Guyton. Seven shadows are sited on the concrete walking paths throughout the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Four are cast in bronze and set into the pavement, two are etched into the concrete, and one is rendered in water-resistant coating to be visible only when wet. According to the artwork label, “Each of the sculptures celebrates an important figure in Minnesota history,” including Maḣpiya Wic̣aṡṭa (Cloud Man), Harriet Robinson Scott, Eliza Winston, Siah Armajani, and Kirk Washington, Jr. The two remaining sculptures represent “more general impressions” of childhood and time. Many of the shadows for historical figures are adorned with poems written by Guyton. As Aiken says, “With very few words, her poems give you a sense of this entity who shared their life with the world.”
A public garden setting is fitting for these artists. As master gardeners and the descendants of farmers, they share a love of cultivating plants and fostering relationships between living things. For the past year, Aiken and Jones have been visiting the sculpture garden to photograph or trace the shadows of friends and staff members at key times in the solar cycle. On the fall and spring equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices, visitors can align their shadows with the sculptures or, as Jones says, “with our ancestors.” Alexandra Nicome, an interpretation fellow at the Walker who was involved in the project, sees this happening already:
When visitors find these sculptures in the garden paths, I think they instinctively understand Jones and Aiken’s playful and poetic prompt. It’s almost without thinking that people dance around the figures trying to match their shadows, a “cast” made from the mold of their bodies by way of the sun, with the shadow sculptures in the sidewalks, which through a long process were cast into bronze.
To create the nubbly sculptural surfaces Aiken and Jones glued seeds indigenous to Minnesota on their molds. Their goal was twofold: to prevent visitors from slipping and to create a texture representative of place. “In the moment that we align our bodies with these sculptures,” Nicome says, “there becomes a communion of embodied experiences—across time and mediums and histories and people.”
Longtime residents of the Twin Cities might recognize Shadows from Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, where the first iteration was installed in 1992 and can still be seen today. There, seven bronze shadows inset in the pavement memorialize historical figures such as Dred Scott, an enslaved African American man who successfully sued for his family’s freedom; Woo Yee Sing, a Chinese immigrant who owned a restaurant off Nicollet at 6th Street; and Nellie Stone Johnson, a union organizer and the first Black elected official in Minneapolis. After Shadows debuted, Aiken and Jones realized they had missed something in telling the story of unsung heroes. “We had a cross-cultural base of shadows at Nicollet Mall [but] it just wasn’t enough,” said Aiken. “So we sat down and started creating a new list of historically significant people and contemporaries.” After narrowing the list, Guyton began the research process for her poems.
Digging Deep in History
Many women have been the force behind the work of male artists but relegated to a lesser status, if not written out of history entirely. To be sure, Guyton’s contribution to Shadows is more significant than the current didactic label suggests. In fact, it was her poems at Nicollet Mall that moved Jones and Aiken to a higher level of consciousness around representation and storytelling. Reflecting on her poetry reading at the Walker’s opening ceremony, Jones said, “I was blown away, even as a member of the team, for how powerful her pieces were. We realized that we made a mistake in the way the work is labeled. Soyini’s poems are the voice of these pieces.” Expressing mutual admiration for her, Aiken added, “Soyini can put the words in there that let you go deep into the deep things that other people have done.”
Guyton was commissioned separately by the Walker, which afforded her the opportunity to develop a companion chapbook—a stunning collection of “poetic meditations” on light blue, hand-made paper. However, she doesn’t typically identify as a poet but as someone who, to paraphrase, likes reading and writing about the things she likes reading and writing about. Harriet Robinson Scott and Eliza Winston—two women represented in Shadows—are prime examples. Guyton has continued her research on their lives and is currently making a video about them.
Both enslaved in the nineteenth century, Scott and Winston petitioned for their freedom in Minnesota where, although it was a free state, African Americans still found liberation hard to come by. “Minnesota has always been that kind of place that’s wanted to be seen as liberal but really is not liberal at all,” said Guyton. “In the poems, I tried to pull out something that was not necessarily known. For instance, Harriet and [her husband] Dred Scott had two daughters; one was born on free soil and the other was born in ‘unfree waters.’ Harriet was very aware that as her daughters matured, they could be separated. After they left Fort Snelling and went to St. Louis, Harriet and Dred hid their daughters over a long period of time.” As the story usually goes, Dred Scott went to trial in a St. Louis court to sue for his freedom. Some argue that his actions were prompted by Harriet’s earlier, courageous petition. “In my piece for Harriet, the word ‘daughters’ is spelled out vertically,” Guyton continued. “This was the most compelling thing to me—the core of her strength was that she wanted her daughters to be free.”
Seeing the Self
One of the poems in Shadows was written by the late Kirk Washington, Jr. (1975–2016), a beloved Twin Cities artist who was killed in a car accident. Jones and Aiken had mentored Washington since his teens and wanted to pay homage to him at the Walker. His shadow points to the northside of Minneapolis where he lived. Only visible when wet, finding it requires determination and advanced planning (read: bring water).
On a hot July afternoon, my partner and I emptied our water bottles on the pavement to reveal the shadow. Close to the length of an actual body, I read it as a chalk outline at a crime scene. Was this a deliberate reference to Washington’s tragic passing? Or to his identity as a Black male? Either way, I felt unsettled looking down on the piece and uneasy knowing that it would be trampled once the water dried up. When I asked the artists about their intention, Aiken recalled a similar reading of their work at Nicollet Mall. “Who passed?” a resident asked thinking that she was witnessing a crime scene from her apartment window. Aiken said, “I didn’t think of the work that way, but it was still about someone who had passed.” Jones added, “There’s no question about what outlines have meant to Black folks in urban environments. We wanted to make a positive piece and transform ideas about the outline, the shadow.” The medium they chose for Washington is actually a metaphor for his creative practice, which centered on questions about race and in/visibility.
Shadows represents different things to different people. When I asked colleagues what shadows mean to them, the question elicited a range of responses, from individual words like sunlight, distortion, angles, secrecy, and spooks to Jungian statements about the hidden aspects of our personalities that reflect on others. Aiken seems to keep a mental library of the shadow interpretations he’s heard and read over time. A recent visitor said to him, “You are telling us to pay attention to ourselves.” This idea echoes the work that Aiken and Jones did with members of the Walker Art Center Teen Art Council (WACTAC). “We wanted to teach them that they each have a shadow. Here’s a shadow that’s important so you must be important.” The teens helped Aiken and Jones select the final seven shadows from the nearly 40 they had collected. Their process began with a story circle. “I want each one of you to tell me your name and your shadow story,” Aiken said to the group. They talked about walking in the shadows of their parents, feeling safe knowing their shadow is nearby, and the fact that you can’t have a shadow without light. “Students are thinking all the time,” said Aiken. “They are seeing their world and our world and trying to collaborate. There are all these challenges around who they can and can’t be all while they are trying to be. Why not go ask them [what they think]?”
Passage of Time
In a sense, working with WACTAC brought Shadows at the Crossroads full circle. A former employee in the Walker’s Education department, Jones was instrumental in the creation of WACTAC in the mid-1990s, around the same time that Shadows was being installed at Nicollet Mall. Reflecting on the years that have passed, Jones spoke candidly about aging. “Summers go by faster and faster the older you get. While we took a longer period of time to develop Shadows for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the way we experienced it was shorter.” However, Jones recognizes that time’s greatest gift is knowledge and wisdom. “Even though our pieces have the same form and are the same kind of rendering, they have much more depth and thinking behind them than I ever could have thought we could do 25 years ago.”
Going back to that fated gathering of the Twin Cities Black Communicators, I asked Guyton to share her version of the story about meeting Jones and Aiken for the first time. Hoping to hear a heart-warming tale of love or friendship at first sight, she chuckled, saying, “They were just two other people at the meeting.” Today, they refer to Guyton as their “spiritual guide,” and she and Jones are godparents to two of Aiken’s children. Their origin story echoes one of the most salient ideas that Shadows at the Crossroads elicits: We don’t know how or where the shadows we cast today might show up in the future.