A Conversation with Sean Linezo

by Jeremy Morrison

Over the next few months, Pensacola artist Sean Linezo has a number of projects planned that explore Native American history and culture, as well as the Indigenous perspective of Florida’s upcoming 200th anniversary of becoming a territory of the United States.

One of Linezo’s projects, which will be present to the Pensacola City Council Oct. 5, involves a public art proposal that calls for placing a bust of Seminole leader Osceola in proximity to the bust of Andrew Jackson in downtown’s Plaza Ferdinand. Another project, an exhibit featured at the Pensacola Museum of Art, also deals with Osceola, specifically with varying versions of how he died following his capture by the U.S. government.

Linezo — who serves as artist in residence at School House 4, a non-profit partner of the Pensacola Private School of Liberal Arts — also has plans for panel discussions and film screenings, including a screening of his previous Statemaster project, which was sidelined a while back.

In this week’s Inweekly, Linezo relays some of his plans for the coming months, as well as his involvement in the city’s recent designation of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day. To learn more, read the full interview below and keep an eye open for further coverage.

— For a information about the virtual opening of Linezo’s PMA exhibit and film screening, check out www.schoolhouse4.org/event-details/virtual-opening-and-film-screening

INWEEKLY: What first attracted you to this subject? And when did you begin working on this?

SEAN LINEZO: If the subject is social justice or the role of art in everyday life, I have been interested in these subjects for a long time … in some ways I have been working on projects related to this since high school in the 90s when I saw the KKK speaking to a mostly empty Seville Square.

They were wearing the robes and assembled in the gazebo in broad daylight. People were taking pictures and maybe there was a news camera, but what interested me the most was a single protestor on the steps of the gazebo right in front of the whole group of Klansmen with a handmade poster board sign that said, “Racism is Ignorance.”

That simple act of protest, that playful subversion with a sense of humor in contrast to white supremacy was powerful. Turns out that kid was a singer in a punk band and I guess that’s kinda when I began working on this. I mean, it really goes all the way back to that and it’ s pretty much the same lesson.

I was reminded of that first impression a few years ago, when we installed the Punksacola exhibit in the ‘archive of The Exalted Cyclops,’ a.k.a. The T.T. Wentworth Museum. During that time, I walked through the Native American exhibit on the first floor and was disappointed and embarrassed by the gross neglect in representation.

Apparently, in the City of Five Flags, our local history begins with the Spanish Conquistadors. The Native people are only spoken about as if they were pre-historic. I feel like part of the racial divide in America today is related to mis-education and misunderstandings of history.

Something that is really important to understand about the work in the PMA is that the faces on the sculptures are molded from the actual death mask of Osceola. The original casting was made just before the doctor cut-off and stole his head. So, the death mask is a very culturally sensitive object. I am honored to have the support of the Seminole Tribe of Florida in making this work and for their permission to share with the public for the first time ever, the oral history that has been passed down through generations as told by the Seminole medicine-man, Bobby Henry.

INWEEKLY: Is this multiple projects, or one project with multiple parts? Is the ‘exhibit’ a separate thing that’s at PMA while these other events/efforts are also happening, or are all these events/efforts considered part of the exhibit, part of the overall project?

SEAN LINEZO: The exhibit, films, events and art works—“Statues Also Die,” “CultureWar2020,” “Bring Me The Head of Osceola,” “Staremaster” and the monument—can be seen as multiple projects. But for anyone that cares enough to pay attention to the bigger picture, there are definitely multiple themes and narrative arcs over a 20-year span that are all converging towards a conclusion.

The simplest way for me to illustrate this is with The Staremaster Project, which started as a staring contest at the Handlebar in 2000. Since then the spectacle of “hard-core multi-mediated eye-to-eye combat” has playfully evolved into video installations for international art exhibitions, became a celebrity media buzz, then went overseas and became a wacky Japanese gameshow before coming back to Pensacon with Kevin Smith executive producing a documentary that was shelved because the local producers (Burton Ritchie of Psychedelic Shack and Ben Galecki of Pensacon) were sent to prison for synthetic drug manufacturing and money laundering.

Now, finally, after a five-year lawsuit where they refused to relinquish their portion of the rights without a fight, ughhh … Staremaster is coming home again, 20 years later, in a completely different format. This time to illustrate an ideological battle that’s been going on since 1492 and still resonates today.

So, as I mentioned earlier, for anyone that cares enough to pay attention, maybe they will pick up on the Staremaster reference framing the opposing views of Jackson and Osceola. On that level, maybe the audience will recognize and be reminded of the same virtues that are celebrated in a Staremaster champion, patience and tolerance.

So after 20 years of making sense out of nonsense and ambiguously taking ‘nothing’ very seriously … Staremaster returns from another dimension to bring the community together again.

INWEEKLY: What is your overall statement with this exhibit? And what is your statement/intent with the Osceola bust proposed for Plaza Ferdinand?

SEAN LINEZO: There is an unsolved murder mystery of Florida history in that cabinet of curiosity. So, I don’t mean it in a rude way but, I’m not interested in telling anyone what to think with an ‘overall statement,’ because the point of the exhibit is literally to show multiple perspectives and let history speak for itself; to encourage the audience to think for themselves.

And with the monument, I’m asking the city to actively and creatively engage with complex issues from our shared history in an honest and inclusive way so that we can promote empathy, understanding and acceptance of diversity in our community.

INWEEKLY: As someone with Native American heritage, when was the first time you took note (on this level) of the Andrew Jackson bust in the plaza? What are your thoughts on the celebration of someone like Jackson?

SEAN LINEZO: Since you’re asking me the question, ‘as someone with Native heritage,’ I should explain that I have Indigenous ancestry, but I’m not federally recognized. In this neck of the woods, Lower Alabama, Southern Georgia and Northwest Florida, after the Indian Removal Act of 1832, when that 1840 census came around … if someone came to the house and asked what race you were the only safe answer was ‘white.’

My native ancestry goes back to that time, seven generations back. This is when the ‘official archive’ transformed my Native grandmother to ‘white,’ and there is no recorded history before that. Needless to say, I grew up de-tribalized and detached from that culture. This ethnic cleansing and erasure of cultural identity is directly related to the Indian Removal Act of Andrew Jackson through my grandmother and down seven generations to me.

Then you ask when did I ‘take note’ of the Andrew Jackson bust. I guess I would say in the early 2000s I started to really understand the brutal history of Indian Removal and the concept of ‘historical trauma’ that can be perpetuated through institutions and public art. It was around that same time that I remember the story of someone dumping white paint on the MLK statue on Palafox. A few weeks later, there was a retaliatory act with red paint being dumped on the Jackson Monument.

I vaguely remembered that, until I found an article from the PNJ in the 309 Archive about these events and used it as source material for an exhibition I did in 2018 at Alabama Contemporary Art Center where I first introduced this ‘opposing view/staremaster’ concept with my grandmother from seven generations back staring across the room at Andrew Jackson. The tension I could see in that relationship is what continues to inspire the current proposal.

INWEEKLY: What are your thoughts on the celebration of someone like Jackson?

SEAN LINEZO: I think the question really should be, ‘what are we celebrating?’ I understand Jackson was a war general and the seventh president of the United States. I understand he was standing in Ferdinand Plaza when Florida officially raised the U.S. flag for the first time. This is local history with national significance. I can appreciate the facts. However, I think we are leaving a lot of facts out of the story and I feel like conflict comes from misunderstandings of what the symbols stand for and this is related to how and what we teach as history.

On Oct. 7, I will host an online educational workshop for students, teachers and anyone interested in the discussion. Special guest Dante Blais-Billie, Miss Florida Seminole, will be our guest and we will talk about growing up in an educational system that celebrated Columbus Day every year. We will also talk about the myths of Thanksgiving and contemporary harvest celebrations. As Pensacola begins to make plans for celebrating the 200-year anniversary of the colonization of Florida by the United States, I will also ask what this celebration represents from her perspective and discuss more inclusive possibilities.

The purpose of the event is also to open the dialogue in the city about what and how we are celebrating the 200-year anniversary of the colonization of Florida.

INWEEKLY: Can you tell me a bit about your civic-engagement intentions? Beyond the plaza proposal with the city, are there other things planned? Why did you decide to incorporate this aspect into the project?

SEAN LINEZO: Due to the pandemic, I’m not interested in producing social events. I also don’t expect as many people to visit the museum. So I launched a virtual tour and made a film which will premiere as a live zoom event on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

On one level this film explores questions like: What is the function of Art? What is the function of the Museum? What is the function of a Monument/Public Art? And what is the relationship of the artist to civic institutions?

But that’s also a pretty boring description … so I would like to add: From old motel matchbooks and illustrated children’s books to Walt Whitman plagiarizing from the diary of Dr Weedon … the legendary story of the honorable death of Osceola has a paper trail that can be verified by the ‘official Archive.’

Every story found in popular culture and academic history is validated by a single diary entry by Dr. Fredereick Weedon, who conveniently left out the fact that he cut off and stole the head of Osceola, a fact that is also validated and verified by the Archive. The U.S. government took it even further and also ordered that Osceola be stripped of all regalia, so he was actually buried as a naked headless corpse, which is another unsettling fact that is also verified and validated by the ‘official Archive.’

An even more illuminating discovery that puts the desecration and decapitation into context, was a piece of the story that was missing from the ‘official Archive,’ the Seminole Tribal History. For hundreds of years, the Elders have passed down stories through generations. This oral tradition was practiced before and during the time of Osceola and has continued to be repeated up to today.

“There Is More To Remember” introduces the audience to a ‘messenger’ in time, passing along the story as it has been told to him. Bobby Henry, an elder of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, describes a different series of events that seems more realistic than the over-dramatic scene as described by Weedon in his diary. Instead, Bobby Henry describes the negotiations, the refusal to sign and the two gunshots at point blank range. Henry explains, “the head and the heart, that’s what we go by.”

INWEEKLY: And what are your hopes insofar as community engagement/participation? What would you hope that people learn from this exhibit or these events?

SEAN LINEZO: As far as my hopes for community participation … well, there is series of online events and film screenings. Everyone with interest is welcome. There will also be an online educational workshop for anyone interested.

In collaboration with the 309 Punk Project we are taking submissions for a “Mail Art Against Fascism // Support the USPS” project, where everyone is invited to send us a postcard or protest sign in the mail, and we will display it as part of the “CultureWar2020” installation in the museum. This project is being used to illustrate ‘solidarity’ and ‘creative resistance’ in an educational workshop produced by SH4RE.

Also, I’m not asking for money from anyone that cannot afford it, but we will be launching a fundraiser for production costs of the Osceola monument. All donations will be tax-deductible.

INWEEKLY: Also, were you involved at all in getting the city to designate an Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Is that part of this, too?

SEAN LINEZO: I had been in touch with Councilwoman Sherri Myers and submitted a rough draft of a resolution before she wrote the final draft, and we have discussed my proposal to raise the five flags of the five civilized tribes in front of city hall.

As the City of Five Flags, we have a unique opportunity to raise the flags of The Five Civilized Tribes on October 12, 2020, in observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This usurping of a colonial trope to acknowledge Indigenous People and the land is a performative gesture not only to show respect to the ancestors and the land or for the Native American audience, rather for me the performance is primarily for the non-Native community to learn (or be reminded) about the Indigenous history of Florida.

INWEEKLY: Do you think the city will go for your proposal?

SEAN LINEZO: I really don’t know. I would like to imagine that everyone can appreciate the idea, but I do understand that some people may feel very differently, especially if they are being asked to ‘pay for it.’

I can understand that and I do not want to burden local taxpayers with this. So, for the duration of the exhibition, I will launch a crowdfunding campaign in an attempt to raise the money independently. I would like to offer it as a gift to the city, funded by donors who invest in the project because they believe in it. If the fundraising fails, maybe it’s just not worth it? Ahaha … but if it’s declined for any other reason, I think it will still create an interesting narrative arc in the documentary.

INWEEKLY: And also, you noted, I think in the background info for city council, that you felt it more appropriate to offer context, or an addition to Plaza Ferdinand, as opposed to trying to get the Jackson statue removed. Why do you think?

SEAN LINEZO: In the wake of controversy surrounding our local Confederate monument, the act of taking things down seems to perpetuate an unresolved tension within the community. It also fails in the attempt to erase historical trauma, rather than opening a dialogue and working through it.

In presenting the ‘opposing views’ in a playfully dramatic and inoffensive manner where both sides are treated with respect in presentation … history is invited to speak for itself.

It’s not about tearing anything down, it’s about working with what we have. It’s about being honest about our local history and accepting the diversity in our local community. We are neighbors and we are all in this together.