At the intersection of public art and historical trauma

Across the United States and many other countries, there is a vigorous and complex discussion underway over the nature of public art in remembering and revising history. Statues of Confederate generals and Christopher Columbus, among others, are being toppled, while new memorials to advocates for racial and gender equality are being proposed, developed and installed.

Art history and anthropology student Piper Prolago smiling, wearing glasses and a brown knitted top while standing outdoors
Piper Prolago

Art history and anthropology major Piper Prolago is immersing herself in this fascinating domain through an exploration of commemorative public art and its efficacy in addressing historical traumas. Prolago is carrying out her investigations as a participant in the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) under the supervision of Chapman Associate Professor of Media Studies Mark Brewin. “My aim,” said Prolago, “is to consider the potential that public art has as an educational tool as well as the limitations it faces in dealing with systemic problems that continue to affect communities in the present.”

The main focus of Prolago’s research is Tulsa’s efforts to remember the 1921 Race Massacre through the Greenwood Art Project (GAP). Prolago is studying both the artists involved and the potential audiences in order to understand the tools these projects must incorporate to create an inclusive and accessible space to consider history and the continued repercussions of historic injustices. “Considering the city’s history in a public setting is significant for cultivating an environment where we are more able to discuss systemic problems that have existed as a result, in part, of a whitewashing of history,” Prolago commented. “While public art should not be the end of these discussions, it can be an engaging starting point.”

Downtown Tulsa intersection with graffiti Injustice Anywhere A Threat To Justice Everywhere
Image courtesy of the Greenwood Art Project

At the center of Prolago’s study are the views of community and arts leaders in Tulsa. Initially, Prolago intended to gather these various perspectives on the city’s efforts and circumstances through in-person conversations. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, obliged her to replace those with virtual meetings. “While discussing difficult and complex issues over Zoom has certainly proven more awkward and impersonal than it might have been in person,” Prolago noted, “I have still been able to learn a lot from various members of the community and I am grateful for the technology that makes this possible.”


Learn all about the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge and how you can get involved!