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May 17, 2004 // UPDATED 1:36 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

International mural exhibit "Coexistence" has Downtowners asking if we really all can get along

As one would expect with a large public art installation, the "Coexistence" murals on the Hennepin County Government Center's north plaza have attracted an eclectic mix of reviews.

At a May 3 ceremony unveiling the murals -- a collection of abstract images from around the world intended to spark dialogue about how diverse communities can live at peace -- Mayor R.T. Rybak delivered some high praise.

He said he's watched the murals go up from his office window and paused to reflect on the artwork with his daughter after a Twins game a couple of days later.

"We thought about what it said and read the pieces together, and it was really clear to me that coexistence as a dream has really become a reality," he said, pointing out a few favorites among the 38 murals, including one showing two men standing on the globe casting one long shadow. "Almost nothing can break down our cultural barriers better than art."

For those who checked out the murals before the mayor and other community leaders spoke about "Coexistence," some appeared to glean meaning instantly from the pieces; others stood with more befuddled looks as they tried to absorb the bold images, such as an infant wearing an animal mask, men with barcodes tattooed on their backs, a heart-shaped globe, and an obese person dovetailing into one with a hollowed-out belly.

Quotations and poems by world leaders, artists and philosophers line placards beneath the murals.

Barbara Roles, a claims consultant for Allianz, the project's corporate sponsor, was among several employees at the opening ceremony. The Golden Valley-based insurance company planned to bus workers Downtown throughout the week to check out the "Coexistence" project, begun by Jerusalem's Museum on the Seam.

"I can't draw, so this is pretty overwhelming," Roles said. "Some of the murals I don't really understand, but with the wording underneath, it just kind of helps to bring to light what they're trying to say. I'm not always getting what I'm seeing in the picture. They're very abstract."

Roles said the ideas behind the "Coexistence" murals are important for people to consider. "I think it does open your eyes to see other cultures. In some ways, we are sheltered, isolated and privileged," she said. "I have friends of all religions and races. My family brought me up to be respectful of everyone. We are only one piece of the puzzle."

Bob Piper, a Government Center programmer, had a less optimistic take on the murals. "Coexistence is something we all hope and dream for but can't achieve," he said, adding that conflict is part of the human condition and everyday life.

Piper's colleague, data analyst Ben Wong, spoke about the impact of art. In his spare time, Wong does Japanese brush painting.

"[Art] has an immediate impact. Whereas anything written or verbal you have to sit there and read it or listen to it or pay attention. And who trusts a politician anyway?" Wong said.

Some thought the murals would spark discussions.

Lori Soyring, an Allianz claims consultant, said she thought the murals delivered clear messages. "Just by looking at the pictures, you can tell right away what they're trying to say. I think it's going to cause a lot of discussion for people who are seeing them -- a lot of good discussion. The pictures say a lot more than words can. They help you emote a lot easier than putting [the messages] into words."

Community leaders at the opening day ceremony said they hoped the murals would inspire people to talk about what it means to coexist locally. Over the last decade, Hennepin County has become more diverse; according to the 2000 Census, 25 percent of the county's population is non-white and 10 percent is foreign-born. Rybak noted that 81 languages are spoken in Minneapolis.

Sheik Saed, a Somali community leader, said the murals should call everyone to action. "This project is a giant step toward a huge task for all of us," he said.

University of Minnesota dean Steve Rosenstone, who heads the College of Liberal Arts, called the public art installation a bridge-builder.

The university approached the city of Minneapolis a year ago about hosting "Coexistence," and also organized a Downtown lectures series at One Financial Plaza, 120 S. 6th St., to explore the project's themes.

"This is a model for the kind of civic and global engagement that brings people, communities, organizations, even nations together in common cause around shared values for the collective good," Rosenstone said. "Because the language of art is so universal and without borders, the exhibit has the power to move all people, to ignite conversations that will help us both understand our commonalities and our differences, that will help us build bridges across those differences in common cause."