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  • Purple, Black, and White: Querying Prince's Minnesota Roots
  • Karín Aguilar-San Juan (bio)
Prince from Minneapolis, curated by Diane Mullin, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, 12 9, 2017, to 06 17, 2018; MoPop Prince, Seattle Museum of Pop Culture, August 16, 2019 (ongoing).

The unexpected death of Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, on April 21, 2016, broke hearts and unleashed waves of sadness, nostalgia, and creativity across the nation and the internet. No one was ready to speak of this edgy, fearless, transgressive musical genius in the past tense. Stricken with grief, his middle-aged Revolution bandmates launched an emotional reunion tour. His 1984 hit "Purple Rain" had a posthumous go-round, nding its way to the Billboard Hot 100 at number seventeen. 1In his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota—the actual location, give or take twenty miles, of his sound production studio and creative lair, Paisley Park 2—the sudden absence of the Purple One brought a palpable shock that turned the night skyline a sorrowful shade of, yes, purple.

Elegy to the Purple One

Prince's Relationship to Place

I don't like Sinatra. I like Prince. And I want to go to Minneapolis!

"Cream," music video

In this Minneapolis-based exhibit, the Weisman Art Museum invited visitors to ponder the connections between Prince's celebrity persona and his midwestern origins, thus implicitly raising questions about race and place. 3As the Prince from Minneapolisexhibit brochure put it,

Prince was proud to hail from Minneapolis. Throughout his life and fabled career, he continued to live and work here, putting the city rmly on the map of the music industry with the Minneapolis Sound. … Perhaps the only global megastar who has remained so embedded in the cultural life of his hometown, Prince is a crucial part of what Minneapolis and Minnesota are today. [End Page 221]

Framing Prince in terms of his relationship to Minneapolis and Minnesota allowed museumgoers—most of whom come from elite, white, college-educated backgrounds—to explore Prince and his music without requiring a direct confrontation with local histories and politics of race or racism. The exhibit was in fact just one component of a much larger multimodal project conceived of by Arun Saldanha, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota. 4Treating pop culture as art suitable for a university museum usually requires a subtle act of diplomacy in order to address "omnivorous cultural dispositions" without offending notions of "good taste." 5One can only imagine the curatorial skillfulness and imagination involved in presenting Prince as a tasteful and sophisticated intellectual subject, the man who banked on sexiness and wrote songs called "Soft and Wet," "Kiss," "Come," and "Head." Following Saldanha's scholarly cues, Senior Curator Diane Mullin brilliantly navigated the deceptively complex terrain of Prince's world, his music, and his life.

Professional Photographs and Fan Art

The first step to building the exhibit was to adopt a wide, democratic, and noncontroversial approach to Prince's relationship with his hometown of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota. 6By populating its Carlson Gallery with photography and its Target Gallery with fan art, the exhibit attempted to balance the luminaries—for example, professional and self-identifying art photographers known for their images of celebrities—with the ordinary people whose exuberant love for Prince takes shape in their creations. 7Including a 2008 piece "Grego Morphing into Prince" by Burhan Doğançay, an American painter born in Turkey, could be seen as part of a diplomatic strategy to bridge the two galleries.

Four Minneapolis-based photographers—Robert Whitman, Allen Beaulieu, Nancy Bundt, and Terry Gydesen—covered specific moments in Prince's career from 1977 to 1993. Their work reveals the evolving image of a swaggering teenager bristling with local talent to a full-fledged, international rock star. Whitman was a young man himself when he was commissioned to capture the yet unknown artist against different street and studio backdrops. Over a couple of enlarged contacts sheets, Prince is trying on different poses and expressions, all of them showing off his big, soft, puppy dog eyes; a seventies-style Afro; a cool guitar; and a shirtless, hairless torso suggesting innocence...


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pp. 221-232
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