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Police portrayed as Nazis, Klansmen in taxpayer-funded painting

Jim Denomie worked in his home studio, surrounded by his own paintings and a vast collection of masks and trinkets. Below, his "Standing Rock -- A Spiritual Man." (Star Tribune/TNS/Released)
March 12, 2019

A painting depicting the 2016 Dakota Access oil pipeline and funded by Minnesota taxpayers has ignited controversy.

The painting, by Anishinaabe artist Jim Denomie, illustrates the pipeline protests in North Dakota, and portrays the police as Nazis and KKK members, Fox 9 reported.

The portrait shows Native American picketers on one side of a burning river with nonviolent signs of protest. Law enforcement officers are portrayed on the other side, along with Klansmen, attack dogs, a water cannon, and military vehicles labeled with swastikas. Nearby, a caricature of President Donald Trump is seen groping a woman.

Denomie was given a $10,000 Artist Initiative grant — the maximum available — by the Minnesota State Arts Board last year.

The painting can be viewed until April 6 at the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis.

On why he added the swastika and Klansmen, Denomie said, “I used these symbols to bring to mind incidents when police have used racial profiling or deadly force against unarmed people of color. It felt to me that maybe some of this behavior was present during events at Standing Rock.”

But the painting is not what many thought it would be, including State Rep. Josh Heintzeman, who said, “People create all kinds of things all the time that are highly controversial, but when it comes to taxpayer money, that’s a different question. The taxpayer, should they be on the hook for this?”

Heintzeman added that the painting shouldn’t have been funded “on my dime.”

Sue Gens, executive director for the Arts Board said, “Our goal really is to try to provide broad opportunities for funding, so that maybe every Minnesotan can find something that speaks to them.”

Gens noted, “The $10,000 grant came from two sources: $5,625 from the National Endowment for the Arts and $4,375 from the state’s general fund. The project did not receive any funding from state sales tax under Minnesota’s legacy amendment that voters approved in 2008.”

Around 4,500 applications are reviewed by the Arts Board every year, but only about 2,200 are approved.

“We’re really proud of the fact that we’re asking Minnesotans how they would like their arts dollars to be invested,” Gens added.

State Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point defended Denomie and said he “met all specifications” from the Arts Board.

“When you think about all the different viewpoints and all the different perspectives there are in Minnesota, for a state agency to pick some of those viewpoints and say, it’s all right to have art that reflects these viewpoints but not these, I think would really create a problem,” Ruud said.