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In Indianapolis during the spring of 2008, Allison Smith produced a commissioned project for the IMA’s exhibition and art parade On Procession. Working with students at the Herron School of Art and Design, Smith created three large-scale wooden pull-toys—The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule. Taking the exhibition theme as a prompt, Smith began thinking about the procession of Jesus riding a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem as a peace gesture. The sculptures developed layered meanings during construction as they were informed by various references, including the donkey as a symbol of the Democratic Party and the Reconstruction-era promise of “forty acres and a mule” to freed slaves.
The performance of this work included a collaboration with Freetown Village, a living history organization dedicated to the depiction of African American life in Indianapolis in 1870. Wearing period dress, members of Freetown Village performed a reenactment of a suffragist protest, which was a re-creation of a performance the group staged in the 1980s during Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. Focusing on the voting rights of African Americans and women, the performance was rewritten for the context of 2008 Indiana. The rally began at Fountain Square, followed by a mass movement onto Virginia Avenue, where participants pulled the sculptures and marched alongside them. Performers chanted the slogan “Cast that vote!” and sang songs such as “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” Some carried placards bearing slogans connecting the past to the present, with references to the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the 2008 presidential elections. Smith worked with photographer Michelle Pemberton to record the participants on parade day.
The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule continues Smith’s sculptural work in scaled-up 19th-century toys, which have included porcelain dolls, wooden rifles, and a hobby horse. Smith’s multimedia installations, from battle encampments to period rooms, are steeped in her investigation of living history. “At its worst, reenactment can be read as a metaphor for the relentless replay and reification of the same old master narratives. But at its best, living history also suggests the unfixed and contested nature of history itself, and our potential role as active agents within it,” says Smith.
Commissioned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2008.