The year 2017 was a lot of things, but at least it wasn’t the year that Prince died.
“Prince From Minneapolis,” an aptly titled exhibition at the Weisman Art Museum that runs through June 17, is both a tribute and a celebration. But more than the emotional nature of anything Prince-related in Minnesota, the exhibit gives people an opportunity to see how he shaped his image through the photographers hired to shadow him — a much different scenario than celebrities nowadays, who have to contend with social media in shaping their self-image.
These photographs are images of a younger Prince, a guy just beginning his career, discovering himself as a musician and then rocketing to pop-star fame, as photographed by Terry Gydesen, Robert Whitman, Nancy Bundt and Allen Beaulieu, who have all found artistic and commercial success in their own right.
Many of these images are familiar, but in the gallery they take on a more archival feel. Prince hired Gydesen — best known for chronicling the late Sen. Paul Wellstone — to go on his 1993 international tour. In her photo “4:00 a.m. at Sagrada Familia Barcelona,” he stands in front of the famous cathedral, his skinny frame aligned parallel to a giant gate, looking like Edward Scissorhands or some other haunting beauty.
In an iconic photo by Bundt, we see the superstar wearing a scarf, his eyes closed, with a blue hue on his eyelids, awash in purple light. In a more theatrical photograph by Beaulieu, a shirtless Prince with a black ribbon tied around his neck and a fashionably curly mullet stares wide-eyed into the camera.
“A lot of his early images were made by necessity by local photographers — there was like a crew that were taking those pics relatively early, and he maintained relationships with them,” said Diane Mullin, who curated the show.
A line of purple dove stickers on the floor — no purple rain falls from the sky — leads visitors to another gallery of “fan art” by artists such as Seattle-based Troy Gua, whose work depicts a spindly, puppetlike Prince character in different situations, like hanging out in front of a lake a la “Purple Rain.” There’s a giant Prince mural by Rock Martinez, and Day of the Dead-inspired glass sculptures of Prince by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre. Minnesota crop artist Lillian Colton’s 1987 seed piece “Prince” also makes an appearance. A purple Prince bike is on display, too, commissioned by Anna Schwinn, a descendant of the Schwinn Bikes founder who lives here.
The exhibit was organized in conjunction with a symposium about Prince’s unique relationship to Minneapolis that the University of Minnesota will host April 16-18, shortly before the two-year anniversary of his death. The keynote speaker will be Jeff Chang, a social historian at Stanford who writes on the intersection of race, art and civil rights. Other confirmed speakers include Zaheer Ali, an oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society who has written scholarly articles on Prince; Alexander Ghedi Weheliye, a professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, and L.H. Stallings, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Maryland. There will also be a ceremony to posthumously award Prince an honorary doctorate.
Geography professor Arun Saldanha pitched the event just weeks before Prince died, hoping the singer would stop by. No doubt he’ll be there in spirit.