The American Indian Community Housing Organization’s (AICHO) new Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center, in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, now has a vibrant new mural by Mayan artist Votan Ik, who is based in Los Angeles (pictured above). Ganawenjige Onigam, which roughly means “S/he takes care of Duluth,” was painted by Ik with his assistants Derek Brown (Diné, pictured above) and Leah Lewis (Pueblo, pictured above) and completed in collaboration with AICHO, with the Native environmental-advocacy organization Honor the Earth, and with the help of more than 40 community members, including AICHO staffer Cheryl Stone. It was unveiled on September 23, 2017.

Funded through a grant AICHO received from Enterprise Community Partners, the mural depicts an Ojibwe woman wearing a traditional jingle dress, with a colorful bandana over her mouth. She is simultaneously a “water protector” (Dakota Access pipeline protesters wore bandanas against tear gas), a symbol of the plight of missing, murdered, and abused Native American women, and a reminder that indigenous voices often go unheard. The image acts as a peaceful protest, delivering a powerful message in favor of renewable energy, education, and gender equity.

Ik’s image is rooted in stories he heard about the plight of indigenous women in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field. “Women and children in our communities are being abducted, sold, raped, and murdered for the pleasure of workers in [the oil] industry,” he says. The issue is volatile, but, he adds, “if we address the problem, we can create solutions.”

The figure is intended to refer to the general silencing of women as well, particularly in the current political climate. “We felt that women have been or were disrespected by the commander-in-chief, the person who is supposed to represent the country and the people,” Ik says, “so we felt like we also needed to address that.”

The image also evokes the face-covering bandanas worn by members of the Mexican Zapatista movement, which opposes globalization’s threats to indigenous community land rights and seeks collective change. Ik, who has worked with Honor the Earth for several years, says oil issues have been a common theme.

“Public art is crucial because it sparks dialogue, especially on issues that are dismissed by mainstream media.”

Update to print article: AICHO provided the most funding for this project, and provided housing and meals for artists.

Jen Dolen is a photographer and is on the editorial team for Public Art Review.

Featured in Public Art Review #57.